In Depth

Boris Johnson facing blue rebellion in the ‘red wall’

Northern Tory MPs warn PM that their constituencies risk being ‘left behind’ as result of Covid response

More than 50 Conservative MPs representing former “red wall” seats in the north of England have written to Boris Johnson demanding a “roadmap out of lockdown” and a post-Covid economic recovery plan for their regions.

In a letter that Sky News describes as a “manifesto for the North”, MPs in the newly formed Northern Research Group (NRG) call on the prime minister to deliver on his election promises to the party’s new voters to “level up” the country.

A hit of NRG 

The NRG is led by ex-Northern Powerhouse minister and former Johnson ally Jake Berry and is made up of backbench MPs, many of whom won their seats in the red wall in last December’s election. The Tory rebels claim that these constituencies are being “left behind” by the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In their letter, first reported by The Times, the MPs express their “concerns that the cost of Covid could be paid for by the downgrading of the leveling-up agenda, and northern constituencies like ours will be left behind”.

“We believe this would threaten to undermine the government’s hard-won mandate in December,” they write.

The group is calling for Johnson “to create a pathway down the tiering system and to create a Northern Economic Recovery Plan to help our constituents build back better out of this Covid crisis”. In other words, the MPs want what Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham calls a “clear exit strategy” from local lockdowns.

The NRG is asking for “prioritising and accelerating” of key infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail connections, and for Chancellor Rishi Sunak to “work on a regional basis to create employment opportunities and growth”.

In a loaded line, their letter urges Johnson to “reflect carefully on our promise to people living in the North during the last election with the leveling-up agenda and make our region central to the country’s economic recovery”.

Rebel alliance

Along with ringleader Berry, the rebels include four former cabinet ministers: David Davis, David Jones, Esther McVey and David Mundell. 

The group’s name is a nod to the European Research Group (ERG), the backbench group who created a series of headaches for Theresa May during her premiership. But unlike the ERG, the NRG membership is public and includes a large number of Tory MPs who picked up their seats during the 2019 election. 

Politico’s Wickham writes that the “fact so many newbie MPs have been willing to pile into the government recently has caused frustration at senior levels with Chief Whip Mark Spencer, who is being urged to do more to keep the party in check”.

“One of the most interesting subplots” in the emergence of the NRG is that Berry, the MP for Rossendale and Darwen in Lancashire, was once “one of Johnson’s closest ‘amigos’” and would “chaperone the future PM around Parliament and try to drum up support for his leadership bid”, Wickham adds. But that close relationship is clearly over.

Blue wail

The Telegraph has described the NRG in similar terms to those used about the ERG under May’s premiership. 

The paper’s political editor Gordon Rayner describes the insurgents as “a party within a party that has the power to overturn Mr Johnson’s parliamentary majority” and that marks “the biggest threat” to the PM’s authority “since he came to power”.

Unlike the ERG, the NRG has not got the track record yet to back the “party within a party” billing. But the newly formed group is a voice for a growing number of Johnson’s backbenchers who are unhappy that the party’s election pledges have disappeared from view during the pandemic.

Speaking to HuffPost, one former minister said the government desperately “needs to have a programme for people who are struggling – my constituents, basically”. 

The unnamed MP added: “‘Levelling up’ doesn’t mean anything to anyone. I asked two constituents about it recently. One said: ‘Is it about Nintendo level up games?’ The other said – I kid you not - ‘Do you mean the potholes?’”

Another MP said that spats over funding for northern areas put into lockdown, coupled with footballer Marcus Rashford’s public dispute with the government over free school meals, means “we are shipping water and the ship is starting to list”.

“It doesn’t matter that you’ve got an 80 majority up on the decks. Once the ship starts to take in water below decks, you’re in real trouble,” the MP warned.

According to Politico’s Wickham, “No. 10 figures are bullish that they will be able to get the NRG to come onside”, with insiders claiming that fresh MPs had been “spooked by negative media coverage, social media vitriol and the Marcus Rashford free school meals campaign, but they would soon ‘toughen up’”.

But memories of the ERG’s successful lobbying are likely to weight heavily on Johnson’s mind. Coupled with his very public falling out with Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, concessions for the North may be coming.

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