Post Wakefield, North Tories Restless

In the wake of yesterday's Wakefield by election, Jim assess the mood of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs and the chances of getting Levelling Up done in a summer of strikes and inflation.

Jim Hancock

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With the Wakefield by election over, the Northern Research Group (NRG) of Tory MPs are on the warpath.

At their recent inaugural conference in Doncaster, the chairman, Rossendale, and Darwen MP Jake Berry, warned the Prime Minister that the 2019 northern swing to the Tories was neither permanent nor unconditional. Well, we’ve now seen that is certainly the case, but the anger of NRG members is not only focused on voting behaviour but on the slow pace of Levelling Up. They feel that once again Whitehall’s heart isn’t in it. Instead of grassroots reform, claimed Mr Berry, we were being given AstroTurf! We need a Canary North not Canary Wharf he declared.

He appeared not to be appeased by news that 2,500 civil servant jobs are to move to First Street, Manchester.

Berry wants a radical agenda including tax reducing powers for devolved authorities. (He presumably means power over taxation which can go up as well as down, even under Tory rule!).

He wants funding for the North based on the Barnett Formula. That’s the system that’s used to award block grant to the nations of the UK, named after the late Joel Barnett, MP for Heywood and Royton. He also wants control over stamp duty to influence housing policy.

But Jake Berry has a big problem. His Doncaster declarations seem to ignore the still powerful reverberations of the Conservative’s defeat in the Amersham by election a year ago. It set off a revolt in the south against just levelling up the North. It has led to a lack of focus and energy on the need for the government to target the key issues of depravation in our regions.

It is valid to point out rural poverty in the South West and pockets of East London. The fact is, as Berry pointed out in his speech, that spending in London is 15% of the UK average and the North has to be the primary target for regeneration.

There was great annoyance that the Prime Minister didn’t attend the conference, especially as Wakefield was so near. Instead Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove was drafted in by video to speak to the NRG.We were told when Gove took the job that he would bring his proven vigour to levelling up.

The truth is that he is being held back by the Amersham effect (discussed above) and by the elephant in the room, the cost-of-living crisis. The Chancellor is under siege to spend more billions to help people eat and heat. Cash for the North has slipped down the Treasury’s agenda if it was ever there in the first place.

All this became obvious as Gove acknowledged he was the stand-in for the PM. Bear in mind this was a conference of Tories. He was challenged on how Bradford had been bypassed for promised rail investment. He ignored the question and spoke about the city getting capital of culture.

On Berry’s key demands around the Barnett Formula, tax, and stamp duty devolution, he merely said he couldn’t pre-empt the Chancellor.

The truth is in a Britain distracted by strikes, the cost of living and a weak Prime Minister, the Northern Powerhouse is running on empty.

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