Several years ago, a friend of David Cameron lamented to me the Conservative party’s prospects in the north. It was 2006, a year after the Tories’ third successive election defeat. The north was, as he put it, “permafrost” in terms of the party’s hopes. It was very difficult for a grassroots base to thrive. There was no cut-through at all, and only a few councillors and MPs. The Tories were all but run out of Scotland, with one MP, and the north of England was little better, with a handful of Westminster seats, mainly in rural areas, and few in the densely populated towns.
Some months later, the new Conservative leader asked two of those northern constituency MPs, George Osborne and William Hague, to take charge of reinvigorating the party north of Birmingham. Hague chaired something called the Northern Board. Slowly, the frost started to melt. In 2008, the Tories won Crewe and Nantwich, a northern industrial seat.
The strategy had some impact at the 2010 election: Stockton South went from red to blue. But of the 124 urban seats in the North and Midlands, the Tories secured just 20. This was not enough to win Mr Cameron an outright majority. After 2010, there was plenty of agonising about the Tories’ “northern problem”. Was it about jobs, immigration, welfare, or the enduring legacy of the Thatcher and Major governments?
Yet there could be no simpler, more eloquent summing up of the Conservatives’ northern problem than Lord Howell’s comments in the House of Lords this week. Large parts of the North East are “desolate”, he said. Hardly anyone lives there, so it should be ripe for fracking. He compared the “beautiful rural areas” of the south to the uninhabited north-east.
Lord Howell of Guildford, who happens to be George Osborne’s father-in-law, seemed bemused when, as he spoke, gasps of horror reverberated around the Upper Chamber. He didn’t realise what was so offensive. Only after an outcry erupted did he issue an apology. But the “desolate” description was so telling because, I believe, it is what a large rump of Conservatives think.
When you come from the north, as I do (Liverpool), but your accent has been virtually obliterated from living for 12 years in London, as mine has, it is amazing what disparaging things people will say without realising they’re being personally offensive. Some will say that Lord Howell, 77, is of an older generation of Conservatives and he does not represent the views of the modern Tory party. But I’ve lost count of the number of times Conservative MPs have, in my presence, referred to “the north” while grimacing, or rolling eyes.
This is only anecdotal, but the “northern problem” seems to be a psychological one, and, admittedly, on both sides. One seems to have an atavistic distrust of the other. Northerners think the Tories are only interested in policies which benefit the south. A lot of Conservatives think the north is bandit country, that we are uncouth savages who don’t care about our countryside or cities. Both perceptions are wrong, obviously.
Anyone who has visited Northumberland, or County Durham, or North Yorkshire can see that Lord Howell is mistaken. If by “desolate”, Lord Howell means the outstretched beauty of the North Yorkshire Moors, or the dramatic coastline of Northumberland, then give me desolation over, say, the chocolate box villages and caramel-coloured manor houses of the Cotswolds, the favourite stamping ground of Mr Cameron and his friends.
Give me a place where I can walk to the next village without encountering another car, where I can buy a pint for less than £2, where the Hunter wellies are encrusted with mud, not gravel from huge drives, and where the peace is never spoilt by a helicopter ferrying Jeremy Clarkson to his new mansion.
The north-east – and, while we’re at it, the north-west, which firms like Cuadrilla believe to be an easy target for fracking – shows England in its unspoilt, geologically undressed state. I wonder where Lord Howell was thinking of when he referred to “beautiful rural areas”, if not the north? Because, with the greatest respect to the people of Guildford, whose town is associated with Lord Howell, and its surrounding countryside of Surrey, I want mountains and lakes, not a series of golf courses and gated homes.
I recognise that there are many senior Tories – Cameron, Osborne and Hague among them – who do not share Lord Howell’s default anti-northern views. But the party must do more to show it sees the country as a unified collection of areas, equally deserving of affection, equally protected from the fracker’s drill.
Hague’s Northern Board did not do enough – it met only quarterly, for a start. A new organisation, called Renewal, has been launched to carry on its work and reconnect the Tories with voters in the north. Its director, David Skelton, who is from the north-east, says there is an opportunity for the Prime Minister and Chancellor to trigger a northern renaissance, by encouraging the economy’s new green shoots to grow in the north. Only then will the permafrost be completely thawed.