Boris Johnson has not had the easiest of relationships with the north lately. While the Prime Minister started his premiership promising to ‘level up’ northern regions, during the pandemic he’s ended up spending more time clamping them down, as Covid restrictions have been introduced across swathes of the north, and he’s clashed with local MPs and regional mayors.
So you'd imagine he was not exactly enthused when it was announced last week that a new group of Tory MPs were banding together to form a ‘Northern Research Group’ (NRG) to make sure the ‘levelling up’ agenda was not forgotten. These days 'Research Group' tends to spell trouble for the government. The infamous European Research Group successfully squeezed successive prime ministers during the Brexit negotiations. Meanwhile, the recently formed China Research Group is credited for pushing Johnson to adopt a tougher line on UK-Sino relations.
The new northern group was founded by Jake Berry, the MP for Rossendale and Darwen, a Northern Powerhouse minister for three years, and in some ways a surprising candidate to lead a pressure group against the government – he’s a close friend and ally of Boris Johnson. When I meet Berry in his parliamentary office this week, he insists the Prime Minister was on board – at least in the beginning. ‘He was absolutely supportive. I think his exact words were “I order you to go out and set this group up”,' he explains. 'So I don’t know how he feels about it this week but I think at the time he thought it was brilliant.’
Berry came up with the idea during lockdown, when thinking about how the Tory party can better use its northern MPs – many of whom were elected for the first time last year. He describes the Northern Research Group as a ‘trade union for northern MPs to use collective bargaining to get what we want.’ That might mean lobbying for central government spending; pushing the Treasury to reform the Green Book which decides which infrastructure projects are built (and which he believes ‘stacks the cards against the north’); or supporting increased funding for northern academic institutions.
More generally, it will be about ensuring the Conservative party keeps its promise to the voters in the north it won at the last election, restoring a ‘pride in place’ to areas that have lost traditional industries, and making people’s lives tangibly better on the ground. Even if that means eventually abandoning the PM’s ‘levelling up’ agenda:
“‘Levelling up, I don't think it really cuts through with the public because it feels a bit like we're going to spread money round differently, rather than make more money… People don't want to spread jam differently on their toast, they just want more jam in the morning. So that's why I think re-focusing on the northern powerhouse, which is an economic plan to turn the north into a net contributor to the Exchequer, is the right way for the government to go.’
Berry says the group wants to make sure that northern talents are better utilised: ‘We've got amazingly bright colleagues who have just come into parliament who are not having their skills properly harnessed by this government… If we're not harnessing the talents of all these 80 northern MPs, then really we're doing disservice to the nation.’ He points out that when northern MPs make up a third of the parliamentary party, it’s a ‘pretty poor show’ that there are only two in the Cabinet.
With several Tory MPs in the North West breaking ranks to criticise the government this week over its attempts to move Greater Manchester and Lancashire into Tier 3 of the Covid restrictions, the group has the potential to cause a spot of bother to Johnson. It has at least 35 Tory MPs signed up (its exact membership and size will remain secret as some members are in government) and has been meeting for several weeks over Zoom.
So far, it has been a relaxed start. ‘We haven't had a vote yet. We just thought that if everyone nods then we do it… I like to think the Northern Research Group is going to flourish using the great spirit of British amateurism rather than rather than becoming a sort of Brussels style over-bureaucratic machine,’ Berry explains. And the group isn’t currently voting as a bloc or whipping on votes (‘I certainly don't envisage that at the moment… Who knows what's around the corner, but it's certainly not where we are today’).
Instead, Berry emphasises that the group’s membership will be as wide as possible, and will focus on what northern MPs have in common.
If the group is not united by a certain set of policies, it might be fair to ask: does it need to exist? Berry is adamant though that there is something that sets northern Tories apart from their southern colleagues. Northern Tories have ‘always been slightly different’ he tells me. ‘Better, I would say… Number one: we are the party of towns. We're not the party of the cities and we're not party of London.’
This difference between the northern and southern ends of the Conservative party may end with the group tackling some traditional Tory Shibboleths.
For many years, it has been argued inside the party that handing over power to local mayors is a sure-fire way to create local Labour strongholds. It’s a premise Berry rejects – he fully supports Boris Johnson’s pledge in September last year to do devolution properly in the north, and wants mayors to have greater powers: ‘If we want northern mayors, their roles to mature and for them to drive and take their real part in driving forward the north's economy, I think they have to be given tax and spend powers.’
The northern Tories may also end up forging some unusual allies. Berry tells me the group has already been approached by the Trade Union Council (TUC) about working on projects with them. And although the relationship is only ‘one email old’, the group has no ideological qualms about working with unions traditionally associated with Labour. ‘Northern Conservatives probably have a slightly different view than maybe other members of parliament from other parts of the country about the positivity that the trade union movement can bring to big northern industry.’ And if that ruffles feathers in the Tory party? ‘Boohoo’.
It will be a relief to Boris Johnson, as he currently battles northern leaders about the latest coronavirus restrictions, that he is a long way from having a Northern Research rebellion on his hands. Berry says the NRG doesn’t have a group position on circuit breaker lockdowns, and is supportive of the Prime Minister’s approach to introducing coronavirus restrictions in the region. He also stresses that unlike Theresa May, Boris Johnson gets regional politics, and has a ‘compelling vision’ for the north the NRG can back.
The group will be focusing now on building up a research capacity, and looking at how the north can be turned into a ‘globally exporting superpower to drive Britain's economy forward after Brexit’. But if the Prime Minister does let his northern agenda fall by the wayside, the Northern Research Group will certainly be there to remind him that, in Berry’s words, ‘if we don’t win the north, we don’t win elections.’