Conservative ministers were in good spirits at an end-of-term party in the Downing Street garden on Tuesday. The Tories enter the Commons summer recess tonight in a much better place than they dared to hope for two months ago. A mini-reshuffle of ministers, a card prime ministers usually play (unsuccessfully) when they are on the defensive, was pencilled in for this week, but David Cameron saw no need to freshen up his team or ruin the holidays of the sacked, and so delayed the shake-up until the autumn.
However, senior Tories are not getting carried away. They may have halved Labour’s poll lead to five or six points this year, but recognise they have an uphill struggle to win an overall majority in 2015. They can’t admit it in public, but some ministers privately acknowledge that another hung parliament and coalition with the Liberal Democrats offers their best chance of retaining power.
Even that won’t be easy. To win a majority, the Conservatives would need to do better in the North of England than they did in 2010 against an unpopular Labour Government. But the Tories lack friends in the North: they have no councillors in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield or Newcastle.
In 2010, they won only 43 of the 158 seats in the North-west, North-east and Yorkshire and Humberside, 13 of which are vulnerable to a small Labour advance in 2015. If they had done as well in the North in 2010 as they did when winning modest general election victories in 1955 and 1970, Mr Cameron would have won an overall majority last time. The Tories won 31 per cent of the votes in the North and 47 per cent in the South in 2010. Conversely, Labour won 17 per cent in the South and 38 per cent in the North.
A survey by YouGov found that the Tory lead over Labour among the top AB social group in the South is only about half as big as Labour’s advantage among the bottom DE group in the North. So although the Conservatives’ problem mirrors Labour’s “southern discomfort”, the Tories’ headache could be even more discomforting in 2015, especially after five years of austerity which has taken its toll on northern regions with bad memories of the job cuts of the Thatcher era. “The North could easily decide the election,” one Tory minister said.
So Downing Street rightly took a close interest in this week’s launch of Renewal, a campaign which is aiming high: to end the Tories’ image as the “party of the rich” which cares most about its South East heartlands, and to reinvent it as a “workers’ party” by broadening its appeal to the working class and ethnic minorities across the UK and the North in particular.
The group’s initial ideas are common sense rather than revolutionary, but that makes sense given its goals: a higher national minimum wage; a freeze in petrol duty and ending “rip-offs” by utility, train and mobile phone companies.
Such groups come and go but this is one is determined not to go away. A campaign to be launched at the Tory conference in Manchester this autumn will focus heavily on low pay and job-creation. A “great northern pub tour” in marginal seats will listen to voters’ concerns, a story I look forward to covering in depth.
Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow and promoter of “white van man Conservatism”, says he has “finally found my spiritual home” in Renewal. Its founder is David Skelton, grandson of a Durham miner, who attended the Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday and was previously deputy director of the Cameronian think-tank Policy Exchange.
He insists the party’s northern problem is not caused by Mr Cameron and George Osborne being seen as “two posh boys” (as the Tory MP Nadine Dorries put it), but is more a legacy from the de-industrialisation under the Thatcher Government. The answer, he believes, is for the party to focus more clearly on issues like the cost of living, low pay and jobs.
It won’t be easy: the Tories do not have a monopoly on such matters. Ed Miliband has dubbed his mission “One Nation Labour,” although he is still struggling to make it more than a slogan that must be included in every Labour speech and press release.
Labour should make gains in the North at the next election. The main shift in the polls since 2010 has been that a slice of Lib Dem voters have gone over to Labour because they were angry that Nick Clegg joined the Tories in coalition.
In theory, that should put some Lib Dem seats in the North at risk. But Team Clegg sniffs a real opportunity in the region; instead of chasing left of centre voters there, the Lib Dems are quietly repositioning themselves as the only alternative to Labour for centre-right voters. Never mind that they are in coalition with the Conservatives; the Lib Dems are now plotting to prevent the Tory renaissance sought by Renewal and, in the long run, to make the North virtually a Tory-free zone.