I spent 24 hours with rebellious northern Tory MPs – here’s what they told me

These red wall MPs didn’t spend decades in political obscurity, fighting losing election after losing election, only to see their final victory undermined by the collapse of Johnson’s cult of personality

Former Tory leader Michael Howard says Johnson should resign after by-election defeat

A couple of weeks ago, I met a bloke who claimed to be responsible for the famous Peter Mandelson guacamole slur: that while campaigning to be elected MP for Hartlepool, Tony Blair’s favourite spin-doctor had apparently mistaken mushy peas for what was, back then, an exotic avocado dip.

My new acquaintance explained to me how he had “accidentally” leaked the story to the local press – despite it being broadly made up – and had been amazed at the speed with which the story had taken hold. The king of spin had been well and truly spun.

The Conservative Party campaigner in question shall remain nameless, but the location of this arresting claim I can give away. I was in Doncaster to attend – as an observer – the inaugural conference of the Northern Research Group (NRG) of Tory backbenchers.

Brought together as a campaign vehicle for the Conservatives’ new “red wall” MPs, the NRG aims to keep their party leadership true to the mission of delivering levelling up for its new heartlands and focused on holding their seats at the next election.

Like my gossipy “friend”, one of the most interesting things I found when chatting to these MPs – apart from how much more northern they sounded than the Baron Mandelson of Hartlepool and Foy – was that so many of them had been active in the party for a very long time. Many had stood again and again for the party in hitherto unwinnable constituencies, constantly being annihilated by whoever Labour selected. And yet they had kept coming back for more.

The 2019 election, when they and their colleagues swept the north, was like a triumph of hope over expectation. Even two and a half years on, they couldn’t quite believe that their ship had eventually come in.

And while many were sure that they at least owed some of their electoral success to Boris Johnson and his famous “everyman charisma”, they were very, very clear that they weren’t about to allow their electoral miracle to be sacrificed out of blind loyalty to someone who was badly botching the top job.

The atmosphere at fringe meetings was febrile: the conference was just a few short days after the no confidence vote and less than a week before last Thursday’s botched by-elections. When the PM failed to show up – despite it being heavily briefed that he would be making a speech in the afternoon – the red wallers were apoplectic.

Not even the fact that Johnson was in Kyiv meeting the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was considered a good enough excuse for not paying due deference to the north.

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If Johnson wants to win back their support – for some it’s too late; but not all – these livid MPs were clear that he needed to start delivering levelling up and fast. They want decent train lines connecting northern towns (“How much did they spend on Crossrail?” was a constant refrain), they want infrastructure and they want a world-class vocational education system. This is what they think might save their electoral bacon, even taking into account the unpopularity of their leader.

Delivering the scale of change they were demanding – as set out by their chairman, Jake Berry – would be a massive undertaking in normal times, let alone after a huge money-sucking pandemic and heading into a huge tax-reducing recession. But this is what was needed from No 10. Without it, Johnson’s northern backbenchers will drop him like a stone.

These red wall MPs didn’t spend decades in political obscurity, fighting losing election after losing election, only to see their final victory undermined by the collapse of Johnson’s cult of personality. The prime minister will need to double down on levelling up if he is to stand a chance at the next vote of confidence.

Ed Dorrell is a director of Public First

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