Boris Johnson tries to turn focus from Brexit with pledges to boost northern England

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged a £3.6-billion boost for towns left behind, economically and socially, as he sought to shift the political spotlight from Brexit to the domestic agenda.
Boris Johnson speaks at the Science and Industry Museum 
in Manchester.
Rui Vieira/PABoris Johnson speaks at the Science and Industry Museum 
in Manchester.
Rui Vieira/PA
Boris Johnson speaks at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester. Picture: Rui Vieira/PA

Johnson also used a keynote address in Manchester yesterday to pledge funding for a new rail link between the city and Leeds, as well as a boost for broadband connectivity and extra resources for crime-fighting.

The emphasis on the domestic agenda continued to fuel speculation that the PM is keeping his options open for a snap general election, despite his strong denials.

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Johnson said: “We are going now to have a £3.6bn Towns’ Fund supporting an initial 100 towns, so that they will get the improved transport and the improved broadband connectivity that they need.”

The PM gave his backing to the trans-Pennine transport link between Manchester and Leeds, which is intended to help “turbo-charge” regional growth.

Johnson said: “I want to be the PM who does with Northern Powerhouse Rail what we did with Crossrail in London.

“And today I am going to deliver on my commitment to that vision with a pledge to fund the Leeds to Manchester route.

“It will be up to local people and us to come to an agreement on the exact proposal they want – but I have tasked officials to accelerate their work on these plans so that we are ready to do a deal in the autumn.”

In a clear pitch to traditional Labour voters, Johnson insisted that politicians had failed people in the North of England.

He said: “The centre of Manchester, like the centre of London, is a wonder of the world.

“A few miles away from here, the story is very different. The story has been for young people growing up there of hopelessness, or the hope that one day they will get out and never come back.

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“The crucial point is it certainly isn’t really the fault of the places, and certainly isn’t the fault of the people growing up there.

“They haven’t failed. It’s we, us, the politicians, our politics has failed them.”

Johnson set out the four “ingredients” for the success of the UK as livability, connectivity, culture, and power and responsibility.

He said this means areas having great public services, enough affordable homes, safe streets, fast broadband and more responsibility and accountability for local areas.

Johnson insisted the country had to “get ready” for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

He said: “On the... risk of a no-deal Brexit, or the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, well, we have just got to get ready for it.

“I don’t think that’s where we will end up. But as I have told our European friends, we are going to prepare very actively for that eventuality in high confidence that this is an amazing country and we will get through it if we need to.”

Johnson said he had “very friendly relations” with other EU leaders.

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He added: “As to whether my friends across the Channel are warming to me, well I have always had very good relations.

“I have very friendly relations with the other EU foreign ministers already and EU leaders as well. We will build on them.”

Downing Street said that detailed plans regarding the proposed Manchester to Leeds rail route will be published in the autumn, following a review into HS2.

The trans-Pennine route is expected to cut journey times and provide additional capacity for people across the region.

Johnson used the speech to state he is committed to “rebalance power, growth and productivity across the UK”.

The PM pledged to “improve the unglamorous local services which people use every day”, such as buses, saying it is about “services within cities, not just services between cities”.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald was dismissive of the Manchester-Leeds rail pledge, stating: “This project has been announced time and time again by the Conservatives.

“With Boris Johnson’s staggering failure to build a bridge across the Thames and an estuary airport I’m not confident he’ll be able to deliver better train services between Leeds and Manchester.”

And ex-defence minister Tobias Ellwood, who said he was “shocked” to be sacked by Johnson, called for a “dialling down” of the rhetoric on the prospects of “no deal”.