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Does Tory defeat in Wakefield spell the end of “levelling up”?

Last week's Northern Research Group conference seemed to promise a brighter future.

By Jonny Ball

Last week, in a sweltering hot meeting room at Doncaster Racecourse, the Northern Research Group (NRG) met for its first conference. The group of MPs, formed after the general election of 2019, included many of the new influx of northern Tories. They were keen to hold the government to account on “levelling-up” pledges made to voters in Labour’s old heartlands. Some from this intake at first seemed atypical on the Conservative benches: there were NHS staff and steelworkers, electrical and chemical engineers, veterans of the 1984 miners’ strike and former Labour councillors.

This was, the NRG’s chair Jake Berry told the northern faithful at last week’s conference, “a sea-change, no less significant and in many ways more radical” than the seismic victory of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Quoting the Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan, Berry observed that every few decades there was a turning point, when “it doesn’t matter what you say or what you do”, but there is an era-defining “shift in what the public want and what they approve of”. For the NRG’s star speaker, along with the post-war 1945 and 1979 elections, 2019 represented just such a paradigm shift. 

Wakefield was one of many Red Wall seats that played its part. After 2019, the narrative of a once-in-a-lifetime political realignment was hard to escape. But if Thursday’s by-election result is a harbinger of the future, then the north’s shift towards Johnsonian conservatism, and perhaps the levelling-up project itself, has lost its momentum. 

For all of the sweeping historical analysis offered by Berry at the conference, there was little in any of the NRG speakers’ proposals that demonstrated a plan to consolidate the new Conservative heartland. It was generally accepted that doing so would require a real narrowing of the yawning gap between London, the south-east and the rest of Britain’s regions. But the policy prescriptions were few and far between. 

There was much excitement when the idea was floated that local and regional authorities should be able to lower taxes – less was said on what would happen if they instead tried to raise them to pay for increasingly depleted services. Nobody was quite sure how to square the circle of lowering the tax burden while increasing public investment in myriad proposed local projects and improved infrastructure, which attendees also agreed was crucial. A new Barnett formula (the “Levelling Up Formula”, as named by Berry), a reference to the mechanism the Treasury uses in allocating spend across the home nations, was mooted to boost spending outside the capital. This didn’t seem to differ much in substance to plans to reform the Treasury’s “Green Book” spending rules, however. These have been discussed for several years and are included in the levelling-up white paper.

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There were more than a few grumbles when it was announced that Boris Johnson had shelved plans to attend the event, travelling instead to Kyiv to meet his Ukrainian counterpart. Delegates from northern Conservative associations and ordinary party members who had been fighting behind enemy lines for many years were disappointed that the putative tribune of the new Toryism had chosen a war zone over sunny Doncaster. “It’s not ideal, but you can understand him prioritising [Ukraine],” one told Spotlight. “Having said that, you would’ve thought he would want to show support after last week,” they added, referring to the vote of no confidence that the Prime Minister had only just narrowly survived.

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Speaking to Spotlight after the Wakefield results, the chair of a Conservative association in a safe northern Labour seat said Johnson was now “an electoral liability”. The realignment of 2019 had demonstrated that “we can win in these historically Labour seats”, but “not with Johnson as leader”. Rather than acting as the lynchpin of the levelling-up project, the Prime Minister was now hindering it, they said: “Conservative members in the north will be expecting (and demanding) that we continue to level up the country… Abandoning levelling up isn’t the answer, abandoning Johnson is.”

Along with the “Get Brexit Done” slogan, addressing regional inequality was the centrepiece of the party’s 2019 offer. No matter that many of the Tory’s target seats had seen their traditional industries and secure jobs decimated by the Thatcherite economic model so celebrated by Berry. But this time the Tory party had changed, parked its tanks on Labour’s lawn, promised serious public investment and an end to austerity.

It’s this new Tory model that makes a lot of parliamentary Conservatives uncomfortable, and the populist programme designed to win in the north has run out of steam. The PM is now rudderless, beholden to competing interest groups from across his fractious party. The cost-of-living crisis and jittery right-wing backbenchers have forced him to ditch plans for a “high-wage economy” in favour of pay restraint and fears of a “wage-price spiral”.

Before Berry’s conference speech, Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee and an MP for a safe seat in leafy Kent, who was also present, was asked for his thoughts on “the dynamic of this undoubtedly new Conservative Party, one that is different to the one you were first elected to represent”.

“The Conservative Party has always been at its best when it champions the views of British people from across this great country,” Tugendhat responded. Born in Westminster, the son of a knighted judge, educated at St Paul’s School and representing a seat in the true-blue south, on the face of it there’s little reason why Tugendhat might feature as a late-afternoon headliner in an NRG event. But the MP is tipped as a potential replacement for Johnson, and the NRG is a powerful new group on the Tory benches. 

Quizzed on his ambitions, he told the room: “We should be ambitious for ourselves, for our communities and for our country.” Even before the two by-election losses, he wouldn’t have been the only one to sense another sea-change coming.

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