Anne McElvoy: Can the Tories and the North ever go together?

Cameron has set out to blunt the harsh edges of the Thatcher legacy

Share
Related Topics

I grew up in the North-east in what subsequently became known as the "Billy Elliot" years – from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. Conservatives were a distant and hostile tribe.

My own household was divided between a Labour father and a mother who had enough of bolshy unions and a Left hostile to aspiration. She started voting Conservative in 1979 and one of the only people I met who did so before I went to university, or at least one of the few who would admit it.

Now David Cameron is wooing the North: an embrace which we would have deemed unthinkable then. The big question when I began writing on politics was whether the North would embrace Tony Blair's centrist New Labour. Today it is whether traditionally Labour areas can accept the revival of Conservatism.

Why does Dave need new friends in the North so much? One answer is electoral arithmetic. He needs around 125 extra seats to form a majority and they can't all come from the gin and golf belt.

The towns and suburbs of the North-west is where one in four of his key marginals are located. The North-east by contrast, remains relatively impervious – though it's significant that the Tories have made headway in Sunderland, where one-party rule for decades estranged voters from Labour, and in Tynemouth, a genteel retirement haven.

But there is something else here too. Having grown up with the industrial decline of the 1980s, one of the things that fascinated me when I set out to chart the Cameronian Northern crusade was how today's Tories related to the bitterness that remains in many affected parts of the country.

Dave and co have set out to blunt the harsh edges of her legacy – and want to preside over a One-Nation revival. A triumph that leaves the northern territories a Tory-free zone would, as William Hague says in a forthcoming Radio 4 programme, be an "incomplete victory". It would also leave him much more vulnerable to a Labour revival.

So a huge strategic effort has gone into renewing relations with the North on behalf of the Cameronian Conservatives, with Mr Hague, as the most senior northerner, leading the charge.

Yet there's still tension in this new generation of Tories about the recent past. The three front-bench figures spearheading Project North – William Hague, Michael Gove and Alan Duncan – turn out to have different views. Mr Duncan regrets the decline of the old industries but thinks apologies are overused. Mr Hague says that he has "no regrets", having grown up in the "Socialist Soviet Republic of South Yorkshire" which "condemned people to reliance on the state". He is "not in the least" sorry to see that go.

Mr Gove hit the nail on the head when he said that the party had to understand that whatever the broader gains of the Thatcher years, rapid deindustrialisation with little thought for the aftermath robbed so many communities of a sense of self, and that need atonement.

Note that wily Mr Gove says "a simple sorry ... would be insufficient" – which implies that far more is needed, but doesn't quite apologise either. That's very New Tory.

David Cameron knows he cannot repair years of damage, in the naive spirit of Lord Hailsham who visited Newcastle in 1963 in his "little Clorth cap", to much mockery. But he understands the symbolism of trying.

"Why me?" Alan Duncan reveals he asked plaintively when told to go and make new friend on the Tyne as North-east envoy. "Because you're the only one who can get away with it," replied Mr Cameron.

The northern cities however have been largely impervious to the advance, as has Scotland. Significant progress is found, however, in the towns and suburbs of the North-west. Bury, Bolton and suburbs such as South Ribble will be names which will make or break Mr Cameron's dream.

It also explains why a penitent Hazel Blears, in her first radio interview since her cabinet resignation, emphasises the need for Labour loyalists to focus on defending their seats. She doesn't believe Dave really has an affinity with the North, and "people are retreating more to the Tories in other parts of the country".

Yet one fact we unearthed one striking fact, with the help of Ipsos-Mori's aggregated polling, while researching the radio documentary about the Tories' northern advance. Voting intentions in the North-west are now in line with the Tories' nationally, so Labour needs to win back some of its old friends.

Central Office shouldn't put out the bunting yet, though. As Mr Hague reflects, "There are only 19 MPs in the North of England." Whether his party can overturn that antipathy will help determine whether Mr Cameron succeeds in reuniting the political map, or ruling over an uneasily divided England.



Anne McElvoy is political columnist for the London Evening Standard. She presents part one of Dave's Friends in the North on Radio 4 tomorrow at 10.45pm

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star