Northern Tories look to party for devolution answers

Scottish Saltire and English St George's flag flying side-by-side
Image caption The promise of greater powers for Scotland has caused concern in England

North East Conservatives are not an endangered species as such, but they are a select bunch, and their MPs are even thinner on the ground.

There are two in the region at the moment - Stockton South's James Wharton and Hexham's Guy Opperman.

Few in number then, but uniquely placed to tell the rest of the party how the north is feeling about the fall-out from the Scottish referendum.

They are after all from the region closest to the border.

English matters

Both then have been keen to comment on the future for both Scottish and English devolution following the referendum no vote.

They support the push for Scottish MPs to be excluded from votes on English matters, but believe other measures are needed specifically for the North.

James Wharton was one of the Conservative MPs invited to Chequers to talk through his concerns with the prime minister.

Before the meeting, he made it clear he was prepared to vote against measures to strengthen the Scottish parliament if he thought they might leave the North East unfairly disadvantaged.

He wanted to hear how David Cameron might assuage those concerns.

After the meeting, he told me it had been "remarkably positive".

He believes the PM has taken on board the need to take the North's concerns into account as a new UK settlement is drawn up.

James Wharton said: "I do not want Scotland given an unfair advantage over us, and the prime minister acknowledged that and took the time to refer to that in his closing remarks to the meeting.

"I am not in favour of new institutions for our region - I opposed the idea of a regional assembly and I still believe it would be wrong.

"But I would be keen to look at whether we could use extra tax advantages or enterprise zones to help us compete with Scotland for investment."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Some Conservative MPs met the PM at Chequers this week to discuss devolution

Extra powers

Guy Opperman is also keen to see the North empowered.

But he believes the referendum campaign promise of extra powers for Scotland must be honoured.

He does want extra powers south of the border too though.

He sees the recently-formed North East Combined Authority of seven councils covering from Berwick in Northumberland to Barnard Castle in County Durham as ideally placed to take on more responsibility.

In an online blog, he said: "What our region needs isn't more politicians, it is more powers. Real powers to boost jobs, infrastructure and investment.

"The easiest way to do that is to build on the existing combined authority.

"They have already come together to make joint decisions on transport, skills and so much more. This is a body which is ripe for more power, and ready to accept it."

Boris for north

But his other idea could be more contentious. He would like to see that authority led by a mayor - a kind of Boris Johnson for the North.

He added: "My personal view is that we need the leader of the Combined Authority being elected as a mayor - as they have in London, New York and so many other great areas, rather than it being an appointed post as it is now.

"I think that is the simplest, cheapest and most sensible way to bring democracy and greater power to the combined authorities."

That's something many of those councils, and other MPs in the North East will have qualms about. And voters too possibly, as plans for a mayor in Newcastle were scrapped when people voted against the idea.

But Chancellor George Osborne has already indicated he's keen on mayors, and hinted he'd offer more powers to areas that adopted the model in this December's autumn statement.

The North East may face a tricky choice - accept a mayor or get a second-class form of devolution.

Messrs Opperman and Wharton and other northern Conservatives will be keen to hear more on how their party plans to solve "the English problem" at their party's conference.

But voters will also be watching to see what solution a party with such a small power base in the North East comes up with for the region's particular concerns about any new UK settlement.

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