Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Who can unite the north and south?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Asked what "Urbis" was, the Tory leader thought it was a bar. Perhaps that was understandable, as he used to be a non-executive director of Urbium, which runs bars and night clubs. Urbis, in fact, is Manchester's museum of urban life.

To his credit, Mr Cameron is the first to admit that he and his party have to do a lot better in the North. In this month's council elections, the Tories jumped a crucial barrier by winning a 40 per cent share of votes. But the Tory leader would have preferred his jam to be more evenly spread. While the Tories did well in the South, they performed weakly in the North, with only a handful of exceptions. Mr Cameron desperately wanted to show some green shoots of recovery in the electoral deserts of Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle. But they remain without a single Tory councillor.

Mr Cameron's "compassionate Conservatism" may have struck a chord with professionals in the South, but has not yet won friends in the North. His attempted fightback in the region is no five-minute PR stunt. He is seized by it- and not just for electoral reasons. According to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, Mr Cameron would be Prime Minister if this month's results were repeated at the general election. On a uniform swing, the Tories would have 337 seats, Labour 208, the Liberal Democrats 70 and others 31 - giving Mr Cameron an overall majority of 28. With regional variations taken into account, the Tory majority rises slightly to 32.

Mr Cameron knows he would be accused of lacking a moral mandate to govern if his support was skewed so heavily towards the South.

The latest opinion polls, which point to a hung parliament rather than Tory victory, highlight the divide. A YouGov survey put the Tories on 47 per cent in London, with Labour on just 22 per cent, but showed Labour on 40 per cent in the North, where the Tories trailed on 30 per cent.

Some Tory MPs wonder whether the man from Notting Hill is the right person to win over people who live north of Nottingham. But allies are convinced he is not the party's problem, but the solution. The polls suggest voters like him more than his party. Feedback from the council elections suggests the Tories failed to remove deeply-ingrained perceptions dating from the Thatcher era that they are harsh and uncaring. They were seen as interested in "southern" issues such as building houses in the green belt. The Tories lacked footsoldiers on the ground; they have only 120 members in Manchester, compared to 1,000 in leafy Tatton in Cheshire.

The return of a traditional north-south divide on the electoral map also poses big problems for Labour, which held on to only two councils south-east of a line from Bristol to the Wash and now runs less than a third of London's 32 boroughs.

Senior Labour figures fear the "New Labour coalition" forged by Tony Blair in 1997 is splintering. "We were losing New Labour voters," Mr Blair told the Labour modernisers' magazine Progress. "We are back to southern discomfort," said a Blair aide, recalling a phrase coined by Labour frontbencher Lord (Giles) Radice in 1992, when Labour agonised about whether it would ever win power again.

This month's results have sharpened the debate about what Labour needs to do win a fourth term. After last year's general election, some Brownites saw the key as winning back the southern-based progressive vote lost to the Liberal Democrats, largely as a result of the Iraq war.

But Blairites countered the real threat was the Tories, now in second place in 88 of Labour's 100 most marginal seats. "It would be very strange to conclude that Labour could only get back to the glory days of 1997 by swinging sharply left," said Liam Byrne, a rising Blairite star and Home Office minister.

Mr Byrne feels vindicated by this month's council results, which may have prompted a rethink in the Brown camp. Gordon Brown told the Washington Post this week that his party needs to "broaden the New Labour coalition" . Asked whether that meant appealing to people on the left or right, he replied: "Both, actually, but we must not lose any part of our New Labour coalition."

Ultra-Blairites doubt that the Scottish Chancellor will match Mr Blair's appeal in Middle Britain. The battle between him and Mr Cameron could hinge on who can best reach beyond their party's natural heartlands. There will be a big prize for the party that can bridge the north-south gap.