Boris Johnson won the 2019 general election in large part thanks to Labour voters in northern England defecting to the Conservatives.
Now Tory MPs who represent Labour’s once impregnable “red wall” of northern constituencies are demanding payback from the prime minister for the people who sent them to Westminster.
A total of 54 Conservative MPs from the newly formed Northern Research Group of Tories at Westminster on Monday wrote a letter to Mr Johnson urging him to fulfil his promise to “level up” Britain, in a move some in the party saw as a sign of dangerous times ahead for Mr Johnson.
The formation of the NRG carries a subtext of menace for Mr Johnson, whose 80-seat majority in the House of Commons is looking less sturdy by the day. Asked why the MPs felt the need to remind Mr Johnson of his commitments to the north, one NRG member said: “Just in case he forgets.”
Although Conservative MPs representing northern constituencies stress their loyalty to Mr Johnson, the NRG has made clear it intends to fight hard to win a generous settlement from the Treasury to help the region recover from the second wave of coronavirus that has engulfed it.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is firmly in the NRG’s sights. He has postponed his three-year public spending review — the exercise that was supposed to turn the Conservative pledge to level up underperforming regions into hard cash for the north — and the delay has strained nerves among Tory MPs.
David Gauke, a former Conservative Treasury minister, said that trouble lies ahead for Mr Johnson. “The question will soon arise: how can you be a high spending government in the north while being a party of fiscal responsibility and competitive taxes in the south?” he asked.
North-south tensions in Mr Johnson’s party are already apparent. A group of Tory MPs representing southern constituencies used a letter this month to urge their northern counterparts to accept the need for tougher Covid-19 restrictions so as to spare England from a national lockdown.
Southern Conservative MPs may have campaigned on a 2019 election manifesto to revive the northern economy, but they will also be fighting next year for a share of a shrinking cake of public spending. “There are messy times ahead,” said one southern MP.
The NRG is led by Jake Berry, a former minister and a one-time ally of Mr Johnson, who has called the group “a trade union for northern MPs”.
It joins a growing list of Conservative “research groups” — others include those focused on the UK, Europe and China — which might conduct some research but function primarily as pressure groups inside the party.
All of them are inspired by the success of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tories, which harried the then prime minister Theresa May as she tried to negotiate a soft Brexit deal with Brussels.
The signatories of the NRG letter to Mr Johnson include former ministers David Davis, Esther McVey and David Mundell.
The letter’s immediate demand was for Mr Johnson to set out a clear exit route for parts of the north under coronavirus restrictions, including Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region. “It’s not unreasonable to say ‘Show us the way out’,” said Mr Berry, MP for Rossendale and Darwen.
While that is a common refrain from Conservative MPs, the long term objective of the NRG is to ensure that Mr Sunak honours Tory manifesto commitments to the north, particularly when it comes to investment.
William Wragg, Conservative MP for Hazel Grove, said it was vital that the Treasury’s so-called green book — which sets out rules for the funding of capital projects — was rewritten “so we can properly justify infrastructure in the north”.
The MPs representing northern England, north Wales and the Scottish border said in the NRG letter: “Never has there been a more pertinent and urgent political and economic case to support people living in the north. However, instead of moving forwards on our shared ambitions, the cost of Covid and the virus itself threatens to send the north into reverse.”
Mr Gauke said: “One of the lessons of recent years is that MPs are more effective when they get organised.” He added the risk was that politics became more “regionalised” and MPs lost sight of broader national economic and political goals.
Northern Tory MPs are particularly troubled by Mr Johnson’s recent public spat with Greater Manchester Labour mayor Andy Burnham over Covid-19 restrictions and state support for businesses, and a row over free school meals in the holidays, because both episodes gave the impression the prime minister was losing touch with his “blue wall”.
The impact of coronavirus on education in the north was laid bare in a new report by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a lobby group, which found that school pupils in the region have suffered significantly more disruption to their attendance than their counterparts in the south.
Mr Burnham, speaking before a House of Lords committee on Tuesday with Liverpool city region mayor Steve Rotheram said: “Devolution can’t be begging a bowl devolution where we are constantly going on bended knee saying ‘Can we have a bit of money for this, can we have a bit of money for that?’.
“I believe this hoarding of money and power in Westminster and Whitehall has given us quite a divided country because it is so far away from parts of the country that Steve and I represent.”