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LONDON — Introducing Neil O’Brien, the “COVID assault canine” now tasked with honoring Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s largest post-Brexit electoral promise: “Leveling up.”
Colleagues say O’Brien, a Tory MP and head-down coverage wonk, describes himself as a “whole obsessive” about ending inter-regional inequalities plaguing the UK for generations.
That long-standing drawback can also be on the root of the prime minister’s so-called leveling up agenda, which wowed many conventional Labour voters on the final election and contributed to the Conservatives taking a slew of seats in Labour’s “pink wall” of the North and Midlands.
Delivering for these voters is seen as essential to a second Johnson win. As such, the prime minister has tasked the Harborough MP with ensuring it occurs.
The prime minister has taken the veteran suppose tanker into Downing Avenue to behave as his leveling up adviser, and can produce a white paper detailing a deliverable coverage for publication later this 12 months.
Nick Religion, who labored with the Harborough MP at two suppose tanks, mentioned there was “nobody higher positioned to tackle this position.”
“He can get the concepts and he can get them by the system.” he added.
The leveling up idea was a obscure Conservative election promise in 2019, outlining the necessity to to assist struggling areas of Britain meet up with its wealthier elements. It has attracted criticism for an absence of definition, with some ministers being unable to stipulate precisely how will probably be measured as soon as carried out.
The problem for O’Brien, nonetheless, is political: The Conservatives must work out the right way to ship one thing tangible to lock in working-class votes. “It’s going to should be about correct outcomes that individuals genuinely care about,” mentioned Religion. “Until Neil can put some meat on the idea of leveling up and display how life has improved underneath this authorities, will probably be tougher to maintain these voters who backed the Conservatives for the primary time in 2019.”
It’s no simple feat: The thought of bettering poorer areas is hardly new, nevertheless it’s one which remained stubbornly immune to coverage interventions over a long time.
Such a tangle needs to be no match for O’Brien, a problem-solving whizz who can take an summary idea and boil it down into one thing deliverable, in accordance with colleagues previous and current. “He has an unbelievable mind — like a whirring pc,” one Conservative MP mentioned. A minister mentioned he’s “tremendous vibrant” and “good with a pivot desk” — information nerds’ favourite spreadsheet operate.
A giant query is whether or not O’Brien additionally has the political acumen and clout in Downing Avenue to struggle for outcomes, significantly since his unyielding pro-lockdown stance angered so lots of his colleagues. His allies say he does, and argue his battle with anti-lockdown MPs confirmed his capacity to make use of information to win the argument.
O’Brien spent months in fierce rows over whether or not the U.Okay. ought to impose COVID restrictions, taking over libertarian Conservative MPs and right-wing information shops on Twitter, throwing out details and stats countering claims concerning the coronavirus being overblown or lockdowns doing extra hurt than good. He arrange a web site to debunk the arguments peddled by media polemicists, anti-lockdown lecturers and — though he by no means named them — his personal Conservative colleagues (like Mark Harper and Steve Baker).
“It was both the bravest factor to do or suicidal,” mentioned the Conservative MP quoted on the high of this text. “They’ll all get their very own again on him sooner or later.” Certainly, right-wing journal the Spectator continues to call him as a bête noire, going so far as to ask intern candidates to write down essays disparaging him.
Tory critics say they suppose Downing Avenue put him as much as it and provided the info. “He grew to become their assault canine on COVID,” mentioned one other MP. “He’s an entire loyalist who’s utilized by No. 10.”
Those that know O’Brien insist he was by no means requested to struggle the skeptics, and was incensed about coronavirus misinformation within the media. “When one thing is clearly deceptive, I’d think about that pisses him off,” the minister added.
His supporters argue it confirmed the introverted coverage geek additionally has political mettle. “I used to be actually impressed and pleased with him over COVID — for a Conservative MP to be as essential as he was of the Every day Telegraph is fairly daring,” mentioned Danny Finkelstein, a Conservative peer who arrange the Onward suppose tank alongside O’Brien. “It actually resolved the query of whether or not he was any person who was keen to talk out for what he thought was the fitting factor.”
Finkelstein added: “When you’re asking me for the second the place I moved from pondering that he was a superb, stable expertise to pondering that we have been coping with any person of excessive political ability, it was that.”
Battles along with his Conservative colleagues might have solely simply begun: MPs in conventional Tory seats within the South are frightened a renewed concentrate on the north of England may imply their areas are uncared for. Downing Avenue sounds critical in its backing for O’Brien, nonetheless, with the MP addressing the Cupboard on his plans this month and assembly Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
The brand new job is a dream come true for O’Brien, who has been pursuing the regional inequality situation by his work in suppose tanks and authorities for many of his profession.
On this vein, admirers have questioned why he has not made extra progress on this space. “I used to be struck by the truth that he’s somebody who was clearly very succesful, very vibrant, however didn’t instantly get preferment inside the Tory celebration,” mentioned Norman Lamb, a former Liberal Democrat MP who labored with O’Brien on the science and know-how committee. “There are many his contemporaries who are actually ministers. And he’s not. And is that as a result of he hasn’t shouted loud sufficient? Made a sufficiently big influence internally?”
One motive could also be his quiet nature and allergy to Westminster schmoozing. “He’s not socially assured in any respect. He isn’t going to stroll right into a room and slap individuals on the again,” mentioned one former colleague. “You don’t suppose you’ve simply met Invoice Clinton while you’ve simply met him. Neil’s expertise and character turn into extra seen when you realize him higher.” Allies cite his lengthy file as a backroom influencer and the respect he has gained for his mastery of the substance.
O’Brien labored on the “northern powerhouse” — a precursor to the leveling up plan — as an adviser to former Chancellor George Osborne, and later suggested then-Prime Minister Theresa Could on industrial technique. However Johnson is the primary prime minister who owes massive outcomes to working-class seats within the North and Midlands after they helped win him an 80-seat majority.
“I believe Neil was in all probability a kind of individuals who recognized, earlier than anybody put a reputation on it, why leveling up was wanted,” mentioned Conservative peer and former Cupboard minister Nicky Morgan, who labored alongside O’Brien within the Treasury.
Certainly, O’Brien was writing about how the Conservatives may win over voters in working-class heartlands way back to 2012. Morgan mentioned his background — rising up in Huddersfield the place he attended a state faculty — was an important connection to his later work.
Different colleagues agree. “When you come from a state faculty in Huddersfield it’s essential to have considered that stuff,” mentioned one Conservative frontbencher. “Clearly one thing clicked that made him suppose center-right politics was the fitting approach to strategy it.”
It was seeing Huddersfield struggle its approach out of the Eighties recession that turned O’Brien political, mentioned one one who is aware of him properly. He has talked about how components of the restoration have been a hit, however issues remained as areas have been left behind regardless of what he noticed because the triumphalism of the New Labour administration.
Now O’Brien is on the within, with the instruments to result in actual change and make his obsession a actuality.