Jim O’Neill, who was somehow overlooked in Theresa May’s purge of the Osbornites, has become the first person to resign from her Government. A few weeks ago, the former Goldman Sachs chairman said he wanted assurances that she remained committed to the Northern Powerhouse agenda. It seems that no such undertakings were received. In his somewhat terse letter this morning, he had this to say:
‘I primarily joined however for the specific purpose of helping deliver the Northern Powerhouse, and to help boost our economic ties with key growing economies around the world, especially China and India and other rapidly emerging economies.
The case for both to be at the heart of British economic policy is even stronger following the referendum, and I am pleased that, despite speculation to the contrary, both appear to be commanding your personal attention.’
So he has quit as Commercial Secretary to the Treasury and has also resigned the Tory whip in the Lords, in a further raspberry blown to Mrs May. But he’s keeping the peerage.
His decision to walk gives Theresa May something of a headache. Firstly, it casts doubt on her reassurances about promoting stronger ties with China. O’Neill was recruited by George Osborne primarily to woo Beijing. After May ordered a review of Hinkley Point, O’Neill was left in limbo. And given that he has waited until after the PM eventually did give the go-ahead to Hinkley (and chose not to annoy China on this occasion), his timing doesn’t look good for the Prime Minister.
His resignation also suggests O’Neill isn’t confident about Theresa May’s plans to implement the Northern Powerhouse either. The PM tried to reassure again this week that she is committed to the project (and also repeated that claim in her response to O’Neill today). Yet O’Neill walking away suggests he isn’t buying it.