Boris Johnson must have been hoping that his troubles in the north were over, after his scrap with Andy Burnham was resolved last week and Greater Manchester moved into Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions. It appears though that it’s not only the metro mayors in the north that have the capacity to cause the Prime Minister headaches.
Last night, the newly formed Northern Research Group – a ‘trade union’ for northern Tory MPs founded by the former minister Jake Berry – wrote to the Prime Minister, calling on him to not forget his promises to ‘level up’ the region.
Over 40 MPs expressed their concern in the letter that:
“‘The cost of Covid could be paid for by the downgrading of the levelling-up agenda, and northern constituencies like ours will be left behind.’
— Patrick Maguire (@patrickkmaguire) October 26, 2020
EXC: Blue wall rebellion begins. 41 Tory MPs from Jake Berry’s new Northern Research Group have written to the PM to express concerns that government will break its promise to level-up.They warn he must “reflect carefully” on his promises to the north and urge more investment pic.twitter.com/ZanUim2qDI
They have called on the PM to set out a roadmap out of tiered lockdown, create a ‘Northern Economic Recovery Plan’, and commit to Tory manifesto promises to spend on infrastructure in the north.
In many ways a clash between Boris Johnson and the north has seemed inevitable ever since the pandemic struck in March. Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda always implied that greater amounts of money would have to be doled out in the region (whether on infrastructure, direct funding or tax breaks) if he had any realistic ambition of keeping voters in the ‘Blue Wall’ happy before the next election.
But that becomes very difficult to justify when both the Treasury’s coffers are empty and whole sectors of the economy across the country have been devastated during the pandemic.
MPs and local leaders in the north have made the case that the pandemic means levelling up is needed more than ever. They argue that since poorer areas are likely to be hit harder by Covid restrictions – and some of the most deprived areas of England are in the north – then it makes sense for Number 10 to focus on rebuilding there as a priority. Their case is made stronger by the fact that gruelling local restrictions have so far only been put in place in the Midlands and north.
Whether these kinds of arguments will wash though with devastated hospitality venues and shuttered shops in the rest of the country, is a harder argument to make.
Which is where the Northern Research Group (NRG) comes in. When Coffee House spoke to Jake Berry last week, it was clear he wanted the group to work alongside Boris Johnson and what he called the PM’s ‘compelling vision’ for the North. Berry struck a similar tone on the Today programme this morning when he stressed that he wanted to ‘work with the Prime Minister... to revitalise the levelling up agenda’.
But it’s clear from last night’s letter that the Northern Research Group believes Boris Johnson needs reminding of the electoral and parliamentary benefits of levelling up as well. The Northern Research Group’s letter (and its 40 plus signatories) is best seen in these terms as an impressive show of strength, which will remind Boris Johnson that if he renegues on his promises to the north, he will have to face unhappy backbenchers in his own party, as well as voters in the north.
The 80 plus Tory MPs in the north and Midlands have described themselves as ‘the Prime Minister’s majority’ in recent weeks. If Boris Johnson doesn’t watch out, that could become a reality.