As Conservative Party members decide whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt should lead their Party and the Country, we look at which candidate would be best for the West Midlands, and who is best placed to support the West Midlands in the months and years ahead.
The most immediate and pressing issue facing the West Midlands is, of course, Brexit.
The West Midlands is unique as it relies heavily on manufacturing, especially the automotive industry, for employment, investment and its cultural identity. Vital to keeping this already vulnerable industry afloat is the European Single Market.
Even before the UK has left the EU, Brexit uncertainty (combined with a collapse in the Chinese market) has already led to the loss of hundreds of jobs within this and other sectors across the West Midlands. Unsurprisingly, companies like Jaguar Land Rover and Honda are screaming out for certainty on our future trading relationship. They are desperate for a frictionless trade relationship.
However, the region will not get immediate respite from either a Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt premiership.
Boris Johnson’s “do or die” stance to the 31st October deadline will send shivers around the region’s board rooms. Not only because the long-term hit of a no-deal Brexit has been estimated to be around £18bn, but because of the short-term economic fall-out. Disruption to the ‘just-in-time’ supply chain, trade tariffs, barriers to accessing skilled workers, confidence shocks: all lurk in the West Midland’s Room 101.
Jeremy Hunt’s position on Brexit is slightly more palatable, as he is willing to delay if there is a deal to be done. Whilst his tentative pragmatism towards the Brexit deadline may limit his popularity with Tory members, for business it is a welcome compromise.
Not too far behind Brexit on the West Midland’s list of priorities is HS2.
This mega infrastructure project has already injected millions of pounds of investment into the regional economy, with countless professions flocking to the region to support the project. Limiting the scope of the project, let alone scrapping it, would seriously damage the future economic prospects of the West Midlands.
Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, has already been clear about the value of HS2 with the candidates but when it comes to the scheme, Boris Johnson is by far the bigger sceptic. He has previously called for the entire project to be scrapped.
Many in region will be anxious over what a Johnson premiership could mean. However, we can take solace in Johnson’s recent pause for thought, saying he will not scrap the project in a recent debate on ITV. Rather than binning the scheme, Johnson has committed to holding a review of the project with the aim of reducing its spiralling costs.
Perhaps listening to the arguments made by Andy Street and others, Jeremy Hunt has backed HS2 “to the hilt”, although he too has pledged to examine the finances.
Housing, like much of the UK, is in a state of crisis in the West Midlands.
Just 42% of the houses needed for local families are being built and the number of families on the West Midlands’s housing waiting lists has increased by 64% in the last ten years.
Policy commitments from the Johnson camp have been largely absent during his campaign. Indeed, the single housing policy that Johnson has announced is a pledge to cut stamp duty, although he is yet to specify by how much or for which properties. Stamp Duty is not a policy priority in the West Midlands. What’s more, any cut will not affect the source of the crisis: the overall supply, quality and delivery of new homes.
Johnson’s lack of enthusiasm for housing policy suggests that, should he win, it’s likely the housing crisis will be overshadowed by Brexit. However, it remains vitally important to Conservatives at large so is not likely to be overlooked for long.
The Hunt campaign has been more bullish with housing policy announcements. His pledge to build 1.5 million over ten years was enough to turn heads. However, he has been light on the detail of how he would deliver it.
Verdict: Might need to be Hunt
The West Midlands is facing uncertainty in every direction. It seems neither candidate is offering a bouquet of policy pledges which will fully relieve the region’s aches and pains. Fundamentally, Boris Johnson’s willingness to leave the EU will no-deal combined with an absent housing policy means Jeremy Hunt is the natural choice for this region – on paper. Character, personality and the team around them also matter and the West Midlands needs to be ready to make its case to, and work with, whoever is Prime Minister.