Osborne's Autumn Statement was a nod to the north

Littered throughout the speech were references to northern towns and how they will benefit from the coalition's policies.

George Osborne wants to create "a job-rich recovery for all" and it was very evident from the Autumn Statement that the Chancellor is well aware of the electoral challenges his party faces at the next election. Littered throughout the speech were references to northern towns.

On job creation:

"But they now expect the total number of jobs to rise by 400,000 this year. And this is being felt right across the country - since 2010 the number of jobs in Carlisle and on the Wirral, from Selby to South Tyneside - have all grown faster than in London."

On housing:

"So this week we are announcing a billion pounds of loans to unblock large housing developments on sites in Manchester and Leeds and across the country."

On fuel duty:

"I've had further representations from many Honourable Friends, from the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, to the Member for Argyll and Bute, and of course, the Member for Harlow who is such a champion of the people he represents."

These references are important. If the Conservatives are to stand any sort of chance at the next election, then broadening the appeal of the party to people living in cities and towns in the north and the midlands is absolutely critical.

A recent YouGov survey showed that an overwhelming majority of voters in the north support Conservative policies - cutting net immigration, the benefits cap, Help to Buy. But when asked which party they would consider voting for, one in four said they would NEVER consider voting Tory. Looking at the marginal seats that the Conservatives will be targeting, you start to see the problem. Bolton West, Oldham East, Wirral South and Rochdale to name just four are in the Tory cross hairs.

Broadening the appeal of the Conservatives beyond their south eastern heartlands is not going to be easy. There's no such thing as a silver bullet or a quick fix solution to the fact that the Tory vote has been dwindling for decades. But the Tory Party has shown itself over time to be thoroughly capable of adapting to broaden its base.

People often criticise the Chancellor for putting politics above economics. Yesterday's speech shows that you can combine a sensible economic approach - bringing down the deficit, weaning us off our debt addiction, creating the conditions for businesses to thrive - with a nod to one of the most significant political challenges facing the Conservatives - appealing to voters in the urban north.

Nick Faith is head of communications at Policy Exchange

The Anthony Gormley 'Angel of the North' sculpture overlooks the match between Gateshead and Esh Winning on May 2, 2013 in Gateshead. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Faith is Director of Communications at Policy Exchange

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.