Campaigners reacted angrily after it emerged that Simon Clarke will take on the role, despite being a junior minister who – unlike his predecessor Jake Berry – will not attend cabinet meetings.
Responsibility at cabinet level has been given to Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, who represents the seat of Welwyn Hatfield in Hertfordshire, just outside London.
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Steve Rotheram, the Liverpool city region mayor, said: “For all Johnson’s talk about levelling up the north, his first act is to downgrade the minister responsible.
“What kind of message does that send to people across the north whose borrowed votes helped put him in Downing Street?”
And Sarah Longlands, director of the IPPR North, think tank, said: “The symbolism behind a watered-down northern powerhouse minister role is unlikely to go down well with northerners.
“Whilst improvements in transport connectivity is an important component, to truly level up we need to get the basics right, which means good schools, decent health services and adequate housing.”
James Mitchinson, the editor of the Yorkshire Post newspaper, tweeted that scrapping the role in its previous form suggested “levelling up was a lie”.
Some suspected that the prime minister and his aides had forgotten about the northern powerhouse role, after details of the new set-up only emerged as the reshuffle ended.
Mr Johnson re-entered Downing Street promising to “level up” the country after winning an 80-seat majority based on snatching Labour strongholds in the North and Midlands.
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Mr Berry, the MP for Bury, in Lancashire, who lost the job while on paternity leave, said: “I firmly believe that the northern powerhouse was the foundation stone of the blue wall that delivered a Conservative majority government.”
The slogan, dreamt up David Cameron and George Osborne, has been undermined by Northern councils suffering the steepest funding cuts and chaos on local rail lines.
Some believe giving Mr Shapps the cabinet role revealed a mistaken belief that it was “all about trains”, rather than devolving power to the North.
Mr Clarke, MP for Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland, a local government minister, defended the set-up, saying: “Levelling up is a central task of this government, and I am massively grateful to my predecessor Jake Berry for all his hard work in this brief.”
Mr Shapps said he was “proud to be asked by the PM to take on responsibility”, adding: “I’ll work tirelessly to realise the incredible potential of the northern powerhouse, as part of our commitment to level up the country.”