Douglas Ross recently criticised Conservatives at the top of Government – and at the annual Party Conference, no less. “Many, including some who govern our country, want to see a UK government focused on England,” he said.
The bluntness of the new leader of the Tories in Scotland was unusual, but that sense of distance from the national leadership in London was less so. Devolution, the independence referendum and the SNP, plus social and cultural change, are giving Conservative MPs in Scottish constituencies a more distinct identity.
The North of England is in a very different place to Scotland, politically as well as geographically, but a parallel development among Tory MPs is taking place. Welcome to the Northern Research Group.
As its name suggests, this new venture has been set up on the same basis as the European Research Group: in other words, its members will pay a subscription into a common fund, which will fund non-partisan research and briefings.
There are roughly 30 members to date. Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse Minister is the group’s convenor. There will be a committee.
MPs named as supportive of the project include Paul Howell (Sedgefield), Simon Fell (Barrow-in-Furness) and Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn). These are all “red wallers” – members of the 2019 intake sitting for former Labour seats, one of which, Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s former constituency, has been Labour since 1924 until last year.
Groups of MPs in counties or areas often work together semi-formally, especially if their Associations do so for campaigning purposes – in South Gloucestershire, for example.
But this development is a bit different. It is being driven by two events that have taken place within the last year. The first was December’s general election, and its transformation of the Party, at least for the time being, into a more evenly balanced one in England in Westminster terms.
It now holds ten seats out of 29 in the North-East (up seven), 32 out of 75 in the North-West (up twelve), and 26 out of 54 seats in Yorkshire and Humberside (up nine).
The second is the Coronavirus. Lockdowns and restrictions are currently concentrated in the North. Boris Johnson’s announcement of new measures won’t change that. On this site today, Harry Phibbs cities some of the Tory mayors, council leaders and MPs who question the measures. There are two strands to their thinking.
The first is represented by our columnist Richard Holden’s article on ConservativeHome this morning. He is preparing to support future restrictions, but wants them to be better explained and more simple.
Holden, Berry and Dehenna Davison set out the second strand in the Commons last week. If Covid-19 rates in their seats are relatively low, and those in adjoining Labour urban areas or elsewhere in the region relatively high, why should their constituents be locked down to the same extent?
So these northern Tories are similar in one respect to their northern Labour neighbours: they want greater clarity, more local delivery, and more money – a point stressed by David Greenhalgh, Bolton Council’s leader, yesterday.
And they are different in that they want minimal restrictions in their seats while their Labour members want maximum ones – arguing if there are differences that this represents favouritism by the Johnson Government towards Conservative-controlled areas.
Some northern Tories are going further. William Wragg is opposed to the closure of hospitality, tweeting that “it it will drive people from Covid secure businesses where measures can be enforced into illegal mixing in homes”.
In that respect, they are taking the same view as the Labour leaders of Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle city councils, who said last week that “we do not support further economic lockdowns”. Expect rising cross-party support for this view at Westminster and locally as winter deepens.
If testing and tracking was working effectively, these sweeping shutdowns across the North would be less necessary. Instead, shutdowns would be taking place on a smaller, more local, more targeted basis.
On which point, those northern Conservatives and others look set for a win. As Charlotte Gill pointed out on this site last week, the use of local contact tracers can make “a massive difference to success rates”. The Prime Minister is expected to give the green light for more use of them in his statement later today.
One member of the new group pithily summed up the approach that many Tory MPs in the North favour: “national rules with local info”.
It’s possible that the project may fade away when the virus does when (should we say “if?) the current rise in cases in the North is mirrored in the rest of the country, leading to similar lockdowns and restrictions elsewhere across the Midlands and South.
But there is reason to think not. MPs have grown more rebellious over the past 20 years or so. The whips have less patronage – select committee chairmen are elected, not appointed, for example.
The role of MPs has increasingly become to act as constituency champions on the Liberal Democrat model. Some of the new intake of Conservative MPs didn’t expect to be elected at all, don’t aim to be Ministers, and will put their seats first.
Furthermore, the restrictions on the normal operation of Parliament have denied them a normal induction. MPs can gossip, plan and confer in WhatsApp groups, at one remove from the reach of the whips.
So expect to see pressure from the group on Ministers increase. Sources within it are keen to stress that it’s supportive of the Government and of levelling-up. But that’s no reason why its members shouldn’t – and won’t – push together for the interests of their constituents.
For example, one source complained that MPs from Cumbria weren’t consulted about the trade deal with Japan, pointing to a common feature of both: nuclear power facilities.
There is also resistence to northern intiatives being dreamed up in southern offices – and then simply being announced. One MP is suspicious that the new CCHQ extension in Leeds will be “a call centre dialling people up for next year’s London mayoral election”.
You may ask: where is the North, anyway? Is Sheffield in it but Chesterfield not? Government and statistical assessments say not, though they count in the unitary authorities of North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire.
Some will also wonder what Blackpool South has in common with Berwick-upon-Tweed, or Penrith & the Border with Penistone & Stockridge. No matter. If people think they’ve something in common, then they’ve something in common – or will behave as though they do, anyway. How much so, in this case, we will find out.