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

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

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