Boris Johnson shocked the nation in 2019 by not only winning a stonking majority but demolishing the Labour Party’s “Red Wall” and turning swathes of the North of England blue. According to the received wisdom of the time, it put him into a particularly strong position because he was suddenly buoyed in the Commons by a raft of new loyalist MP’s who owed their careers to him. Well, it appears as if those MPs have now discovered the strength of their own position.
The government pledged to repay its new supporters by investing in the north and levelling up the country, but it didn’t count on the new northern Tory MP’s joining forces to hold them to their promises and push their own agenda. It could be that, instead of the Tory Party taking control of swathes of the North, the North has taken control of a sizeable chunk of the Tory Party.
The Northern Research Group has been created by 54 Conservative MPs mostly from the North of England. Led by former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, they are concerned about the impact of lockdown restrictions on the North and the risk of the government’s “levelling up” agenda being sidelined due the pandemic.
All the areas under the strictest restrictions of the government’s three-tier lockdown system are in the North or the Midlands. In areas under Tier Three rules, pubs and bars not serving “substantial meals” must close and households are not allowed to mix indoors or outdoors in hospitality venues or private gardens.
With no end in sight, the region faces economic decimation. The NRG wrote a letter to the PM calling for a “clear road map” out of lockdown restrictions in northern England and an economic recovery plan for the region.
In the letter, the group warned the Prime Minister: “The virus has exposed in sharp relief the deep structural and systemic disadvantage faced by our communities and it threatens to continue to increase the disparity between the North and South still further”. They urge Boris Johnson to stick of his levelling up agenda and warned the region “risks being left behind”.
In response, Number 10 said it was “committed to levelling up across the country”. This letter shows that the government is going to have to deliver more than words and slogans. It will need something more tangible soon to demonstrate how it will level up the country.
“Blue wall” Conservative MPs know they are vulnerable if the government doesn’t deliver what it promised. Many of them have small majorities and represent industrial and post-industrial areas facing serious, longer-term economic challenges. They won their seats in an unusual election and often marginally. There was a sense from the very beginning that northerners had lent them their votes and could withdraw their support if they feel the north is being betrayed, forgotten or sneered at. The North remembers and unless the government comes through for it the Blue Wall will crumble and fall like the Red Wall before it.
The government’s actions over recent weeks have put its relationship with its new northern voters under the spotlight and reminded Blue Wall Tories how vulnerable they are. Voters that switched to the Tories from Labour have a different outlook to traditional Tories from the South. Being further to the left economically, they have different beliefs about government spending.
The government managed to get itself into an ugly confrontation with local leaders in the north over financial support for locked down areas. Their grandstanding made a heavyweight out of Andy “King of the North” Burnham. I’ve mocked Burnham in the past, even sneered at him a little, but this Beverley-based northerner found himself cheering him on when he stood up aloof Etonian Boris.
The face-off created a north-south divide and created an image of aloof and miserly Westminster Tories patronising the north from their ivory tower. The appalling handling of the issue of free school meals and the Marcus Rashford campaign did little to dispel that image. In both cases the issue was created over a relatively small amount of money in government terms so they must count as unforced errors.
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The Conservative Party’s northern faction remains loyal, but it’s flexing its muscles. To protect their own positions and champion their constituencies, the blue wall Tories will need to take a leaf out of the Scottish Conservatives book by differentiating themselves when necessary and pursuing their own agenda. Not quite a party within a party, but deliberately set apart when necessary.
We could be witnessing blue wall Tories becoming a backbench force that will not always fall in line with Westminster. The North stands to benefit from having MP’s from the governing party desperate to hang onto their seats, rather than complacent Labour MP’s making northern constituencies into their little fiefdoms.