The real target of the Northern Research Group is Rishi Sunak

The divide between the Chancellor’s orthodox approach to public spending and the interests of backbench Tory MPs is growing. 

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Boris Johnson has been warned by 54 Conservative MPs in northern seats that his pledge to “level up” the nation risks being undermined by the disproportionate impact of coronavirus restrictions on the north of England. 

The letter to the Prime Minister, compiled by the newly formed Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs, a nod to another research group that wielded such influence over the political direction of Johnson’s predecessor, makes two major policy demands: a clearly communicated strategy for exiting higher-tier lockdown restrictions, and a Northern Economic Recovery Plan, “to help our constituents build back better out of this Covid crisis”.

News coverage so far today has focused on the first demand, and arguably with good reason: Keir Starmer identified this as a ticking time-bomb last week, making the exact terms of an exit from tier three restrictions the focus of his questions to Boris Johnson at PMQs. There have already been widespread warnings that the highest level of coronavirus restrictions won’t be enough to bring the R rate to below 1 on their own, and Johnson has so far been unable to set out clear exit criteria from higher tiers. The looming political crisis is obvious, as open-ended lockdowns in areas that have been under restrictions for months become a pressure cooker of anger and resentment. 

[see also: Andy Burnham: “The problem now is, to a large degree, the Chancellor”]

But the group’s second demand is arguably the more significant one for the longer term. The letter is a very clear intervention in the ongoing tug of war between the Prime Minister and Chancellor over the public finances, and an explicit push-back against recent developments that have seen Rishi Sunak delay billions of pounds of infrastructure spending that he believes the Exchequer can no longer afford.

Johnson is desperate to be a good news Prime Minister, and everything about his political identity points to a profound desire to leave a legacy of great buildings and infrastructure across a levelled-up and fired-up UK. But he is increasingly losing battles against a Chancellor who doesn't see “levelling up” as a priority: he never really has, but he has particular reason to deviate from that strategy now that the pandemic has radically changed the state of the public finances. 

The NRG has seen which way the wind is blowing, and where the balance of power increasingly lies in spending decisions. Their intervention is a warning that the Conservatives could yet lose these northern seats if the government does not change this trajectory, and fast. Most of all, it is a warning to Boris Johnson to stand up to an increasingly powerful Chancellor.

[see also: Manchester’s refusal to accept tier three has exposed what Westminster forgets about “the north”]

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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