If George Osborne wants to support the Northern Powerhouse, he should run for mayor of Manchester

Well, that worked out well: George Osborne in Manchester, January 2015. Image: Getty.

Manufacturers of high viz jackets and other personal protective equipment, rejoice: George Osborne is back – and he's worried.

Two months after the former chancellor was unceremoniously – one might almost say gleefully – fired by Theresa May, Osborne popped up on this morning's Today Programme to fret about his beloved Northern Powerhouse. Speaking in code so obscure it could defeat the Enigma machine, he said there had been a "little bit of a wobble" about whether May's government was "still committed to the concept".

Luckily, though, George is on hand to sort things out. He's launching a new think tank, the "Northern Powerhouse Partnership", which he has generously agreed to chair. The body will bring together political and business leaders from across the north, and campaign for greater devolution and improve transport links. It will do, in other words, most of the things Osborne wanted the Northern Powerhouse to do when in government, with the one minor difference that he’s now outside it.

The left has often questioned Osborne's commitment to the north. His austerity budgets, by an odd coincidence, tended to fall disproportionately heavily on regions that voted Labour, a group including almost all the northern cities. And some in the opposition have campaigned against devolution, on the grounds it was just a way of putting Labour councils on the hook for Tory cuts.

For some, the cynicism runs yet deeper. Many on the left have sneered at the idea a Conservative could even care about a region of the country his party had effectively left to rot in the eighties. Osborne loved Thatcher; Thatcher hated the north; ergo, Osborne must hate the north, too.


I've never quite bought this. It always seemed to me that there was a very good reason why an ambitious Tory would want to revive the northern economy: rich constituencies are less likely to vote Labour. It’s not a contradiction for Osborne to be sincere about the Northern Powerhouse, yet be cynically trying to undermine Labour, both at the same time.

Now he's out of power, and what do you know, his own political self-interest is aligned with the right thing to do once again. Heading up his new think tank will allow Osborne to keep banging the drum for the north, while also giving him a new powerbase and continued political relevance.

But there’s a danger that this looks a bit, well, half-hearted. Exactly what the Northern Powerhouse Partnership will do is difficult to work out, because it doesn't exist yet – but Britain is not short of think tanks, and why this will be any different remains to be seen.

If Osborne really wants to build his powerhouse, he should stop mucking around and go for the big job: mayor of Greater Manchester.

The king in the north

The Tories are not over flowing with potential candidates in Greater Manchester. Of its 10 boroughs, only one (Trafford) is held by the Tories; just five of the region's 27 MPs are Conservative, and none of them is a household names.

Osborne's constituency (Tatton, in Cheshire) isn't in Greater Manchester – but it does border it, and consist of places well within its orbit. He has as good a claim to the party's nomination as anyone.

More to the point, though, this is his baby. The Northern Powerhouse, city regions, metro mayors – all were Osborne's idea. If he wants to show that he was serious, that this was more than an attempt to wrong-foot Labour, well, here's his chance.

Labour's mayoral candidate Andy Burnham, a man who has never been accused of being overly tactical in his positioning. Image: Getty.

In its early days, the London mayoralty was not taken seriously, and struggled to attract top-flight candidates. But a Manchester mayoral election in which a former chancellor faced off against a former Labour health secretary would show, from the start, that this is a big job for serious people. If Osborne wants the new mayors to be taken seriously, he could do worse than run for the job himself.

I don't believe for a second that Osborne will do this, for the very good reason that he will probably lose: Manchester is a Labour city, and Osborne is not exactly electoral cat nip. (Last March, a YouGov poll found that, after six years as chancellor, just 8 per cent of the British electorate thought he'd be "up to the job of Prime Minister".)

But another hit against Osborne has always been that he treats politics as one big chess game: that he is a man without principal, concerned only with tactical advantage. Fighting a quixotic campaign that he is highly likely to lose might, paradoxically, boost his reputation.

Oh, and he'd probably get to wear a lot of high viz gear on the campaign trail, too.

So, come on George. You want to show you believe in the north and its powerhouse. You want the new metro mayors to be serious political figures. And you want a platform from which you can rebuild your reputation and, what the hell, throw a few rocks at the people who fired you.

How about it?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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