Osborne's open door ups the ante for Midlands devo deal

George Osborne
Image caption Mr Osborne said in a recent interview with the Birmingham Post that there was no one-size-fits-all model

"We have delivered in Manchester and my door is open to other cities who want to follow their cross-party lead."

George Osborne's overture to major cities who have yet to benefit from the sort of largesse he showered on the "Northern Powerhouse" during his Autumn Statement clearly ramps-up the pressure on council leaders in places like Coventry and Solihull.

They are currently weighing up the pros and cons of joining the combined authority proposed by four Black Country councils and Birmingham. Together they would create the biggest city region outside London with a population of almost three million and a total workplace economy worth £50bn.

That would rival anything envisaged in the North.

Answering a later question from Adrian Bailey, Labour MP for West Bromwich West and chairman of the commons business select committee, Mr Osborne said he was willing to join efforts to boost the West Midlands economy and to help with the creation of just such a "Powerhouse" here.

'Metro mayor'

Or, should Solihull and Coventry form another, separate, combined authority with Warwickshire?

The implicit promise from the chancellor that billions of pounds of devolved spending power could be handed over to those places able to negotiate across local government boundaries, as what the politicians call "city regions" or "sub-regions", undoubtedly ups the ante for those councils to waste no time in making-up their minds.

Or, fall even further behind the pace set by their friends in the north, swimming with the tide of English devolution.

One possible sticking point is the chancellor's oft-stated preference for a directly-elected "metro mayor" to be written in to the process.

Birmingham's electorate decisively rejected the idea two years ago, none of the area's local council leaders want one and the only experience of the idea that we have had in the Midlands led to an overwhelming referendum verdict in Stoke-on-Trent which led to the role being unceremoniously scrapped.

Image caption Mr Osborne's Autumn Statement followed Prime Minister's Questions

Undeterred, Mr Osborne said in a recent interview with the Birmingham Post: "There is no one-size-fits-all model. But I am saying that if you really want a big transfer of powers to a big metro area then I think an elected mayor is part of that package."

Intriguingly, he also told the paper that between the Autumn Statement and the Budget next March he would be setting out long-term economic plans for different parts of the country including the West Midlands: "We really have a specific and tailored set of things that reflect the strengths of different parts of the country and the need for specific transport improvements, the science, the learning we can bring to those areas."

His critics will encourage voters to see this less as a demonstration of the government's commitment to rebalancing the economy than a pre-election ploy.

Is it just possible Mr Osborne may see his West Midlands economic plan as an opportunity to love-bomb some of its key marginal seats? Or am I being unduly cynical?