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

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker