'Boris Johnson needs to look after us': Inside the new Tory rift over the North-South divide

Gordon Rayner
·7 min read
Boris Johnson is facing increasing pressure from Northern MPs - Matt Dunham /AP
Boris Johnson is facing increasing pressure from Northern MPs - Matt Dunham /AP
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

With Brexit all but done and the biggest Tory majority since the days of Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson should be the master of all he surveys.

The EU – the issue that has divided the Conservative party for decades and led to the downfall of Theresa May, David Cameron and John Major – has been neutralised, and even with the gargantuan challenge of Covid-19, the Prime Minister has a precious chance to mould Britain in his hands.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and the void that has been left by the civil war over Europe is rapidly being filled by a new internal schism: the North-South divide.

Where Mrs May had the European Research Group of hardline Brexiteers gnawing away at her authority, Mr Johnson has the newly-launched Northern Research Group, becoming a magnet for backbench MPs with a gripe against him.

Founded to represent the interests of MPs who took former "Red Wall" seats from Labour in 2019, its members are showing what is, for Number 10, a worrying lack of loyalty to the man whose popularity got them elected. With at least 55 adherents, the NRG has more than enough backing to overturn Mr Johnson's Commons majority.

Like the ERG before it, the NRG is driven by ex-ministers with the communication and organisational skills to give Downing Street the shivers.

On Monday evening, without warning, the group sent and published a letter to the Prime Minister demanding an exit strategy from coronavirus restrictions and more help for the North. To the delight of its signatories, the letter was front page news in four national newspapers on Tuesday.

One senior Conservative told The Telegraph the NRG letter "shows the Balkanisation of the Tory party. The party is now divided into so many factions that civil war in the future will be inevitable".

Its author, Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse minister and MP for Rossendale and Darwen, is among NRG members with something of a personal score to settle.

Having helped secure Mr Johnson's election as Tory leader last year by promoting his leadership bid among colleagues, Mr Berry no doubt expected to be rewarded with a full Cabinet post. Instead, he was shuffled out of the Government in February.

Mr Berry is "very serious and very upset with Boris", according to one ally, while another said: "Jake is a very angry man, and that will be a problem... the tension between the South and the North is going to be here for a long time."

Jake Berry was shuffled out of the Government in February - PA/Danny Lawson
Jake Berry was shuffled out of the Government in February - PA/Danny Lawson

Other signatories to the letter included Esther McVey, a former Work and Pensions Secretary who has also been overlooked by Mr Johnson; David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, and David Mundell, the ex-Scottish Secretary.

Keeping MPs in working class Northern seats happy is not a problem many Tory Prime Ministers have had to worry about in the past, as they never had them. However, dozens of newly-elected MPs in the rebranded "Blue Wall" fear defeat at the next election because the defining issue in 2019 – Brexit – will no longer be a factor.

One said: "Boris Johnson asked people to lend him their votes so he could get Brexit done, and the worry for us is that they will have done exactly that – lent him their vote as a one-off before reverting to Labour next time.

"There is a huge amount of resentment among voters about the way the North has been treated during the pandemic. When London was the centre of infections we had a national lockdown, but now that the North is the centre of it we have local lockdowns, so only the North has to suffer.

"It's been compounded by the mess we've got into over free school meals. Most people don't know what levelling up means, but they know who Marcus Rashford is and think we have refused to feed children. That's the sort of thing people will remember for years to come."

Other NRG members include Simon Clarke, who succeeded Mr Berry in February but resigned from the Government in September for personal reasons, while Northern MPs who did not sign the letter but have openly opposed Mr Johnson’'s policies include Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs.

In their central demand of a clear exit strategy from Tier 3, they are destined for disappointment. One minister told The Telegraph: "It's impossible. Do they not think if we could give the entire country an exit strategy we would have done?

"There are so many factors that have to be taken into account – how many ICU beds are free in an area, the infection rates, the rates among over-60s, how much testing is being done. There is nothing the Prime Minister would have loved more than to say we're going to be out of this in two months, but it just isn't possible. We'd have done it long before now."

With unemployment expected to rise when the Government's furlough scheme comes to end on Saturday, the North is dependent on major investment from the Chancellor in job-creating infrastructure projects to fulfil the manifesto promise of "levelling up" the North.

One Tory MP said there was "nothing any Government could do at this stage" to prevent the worsening economic situation in the North, adding: "It's just about damage limitation – and it's going to be awful."

NRG members fear that, with hundreds of billions of pounds diverted to Covid-19 bailouts, the North – and the manifesto promises of ambitious investment programmes – will be "forgotten" by a Cabinet with only two Northern MPs in it, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary.

Mr Sunak was pushed out onto the airwaves on Tuesday to declare himself "a Northern Chancellor" as he insisted money for roads and railways in the North would still be forthcoming. He said: "Yes, we absolutely will remain committed to investing in infrastructure, in new job placements, bringing broadband to rural areas… people should rightly keep fighting for them and we will make sure we deliver them."

Treasury sources, meanwhile, insisted that ministers remained committed to delivering on "signature manifesto commitments" and would confirm multi-year capital spending on key programmes despite next month's spending review being cut from a three-year to a one-year period.

Another criticism from some Tory backbenchers, especially those elected in 2019, is that they feel "ignored" by Downing Street. One said: "Number 10 have no idea about Parliament – the PM has never been a lover of the place, and the people around him treat MPs with contempt. They operate as if it is a mayoralty."

While Mr Johnson has little spare time to massage the egos of backbenchers in the middle of a national crisis, many complain of a "complete lack of engagement" from the Whips' Office. "There is no-one making sure everything is OK and [asking] what support people need," said one MP. "Some of us feel very expendable."

Another said: "It has felt like you are shouting into the void and no one is listening"

Downing Street sources insisted there was "a huge amount of engagement" with backbench MPs.

While comparisons with Europe are inevitable, Mr Johnson does have one huge advantage over his predecessors – the current divides can be repaired.

Brexiteers and Remainers were impossible to reconcile because they adhered to opposing ideologies, but the complaints of northern MPs can be handled with investment in the region, policy tweaks and, in some cases, patronage.

Mrs May did her best to neutralise the ERG by taking its leaders into the Government, including Steve Baker, who became a Brexit minister, and Suella Braverman, who became Attorney General.

Some NRG members believe Mr Berry could be offered a Cabinet job in the next reshuffle. As he has pointed out, the northern Tories "are the Prime Minister's majority and, bluntly, he needs to look after us".