This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I had a welcome reminder of this fact when, at last Friday’s Northern Research Group conference in Doncaster, Nick Fletcher, the MP for Don Valley and the conference’s opening speaker, informed the attendant MPs, local councillors, party members, lobbyists, and hacks that ‘Donny’ had been Britain’s Las Vegas in the eighteenth century.
There’s my title and theme, I thought – an easy introduction to 900-or-so words riffing on disgruntled Northern MPs complaining about how the Prime Minister had abandoned them, how levelling-up has so far proved an empty promise, and how scared they were at losing their seats. Unfortunately for me, the event proved far less negative than I had cynically expected. Instead, it was a fascinating and worthwhile insight into a potentially transformative policy agenda.
The structure of the day was simple: a series of speeches, followed by breakouts into policy-focused panels, followed by plenary sessions where panel-members would feed back the policy ideas generated. All this would culminate in a small NRG manifesto that could be presented to the conference’s not-so-secret mystery guest. Unfortunately, that mystery guest was in Kyiv, rather than Doncaster, so the Secretary of State for Levelling Up took his place.
The conference’s only similarity with Thompson’s novel was the heat, as the racecourse we were in baked in 30-odd degrees. The event’s ethos leant far more into “earnest discussion of fibre-optic rollouts in Northumbria” than to excessive drugs and booze ingestion – although if the bar had opened for thirsty attendees, they would have done a roaring trade. Instead, we were left with some hastily refilled water jugs and tempting buffet lunches to get us through the hours.
Nevertheless, the actual events of the conference were more than adequate to distract one from the stifling heat. Following Fletcher, Ben Houchen, the popular Mayor of Tees Valley, and Jake Berry, the Rossendale and Darwen MP and the Northern Research Group’s chair, delivered two pieces setting the scene on the North, although Houchen’s comments came down-the-line from Albania. Clearly Eastern Europe is in vogue with top Tories.
All was as one would expect: stout-hearted references to the smashing of the Red Wall in 2019, healthy statistics about levels of inward investment and employment, and a plea to the Government to take the North and levelling-up seriously before the next election. The first panel, including Bishop Auckland (and Tik Tok’s) Dehenna Davison and GB News’ Michelle Newberry, highlighted the importance of giving Northern youngsters’ local opportunities.
Onto a breakout session on how ‘Net Zero Needn’t Cost You the Earth’. Sara Britcliffe and Jacob Young, MPs for Hyndburn and Redcar respectively, spoke eloquently of how Net Zero can be married to the Government’s levelling-up ambitions in order to make the North as much the home of the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ as it was the first. Blyth Valley’s Ian Levy pointed out how greenery were already said to bring 12,000 jobs to his constituency.
After the buffet lunch – fish goujons and a nice macaron – another breakout session. This was on ‘Connecting the North’ and saw a mixture of panellists from politics and business discuss the ongoing problems of connectivity, both physical and digital, across the North. The claim of Paul Howell, the MP for Tony Blair’s former constituency of Sedgefield, that it was faster for him to get to London than Manchester was rather eye-opening.
This prepared the conference-goers for the feedback session – sorry, ‘Big Ideas Debate’ – where representatives of the various panels informed the audience what had been discussed. Berry then returned to give a rundown of the overall conference, and to highlight the three big policies it had produced: a call for a Northern equivalent of the Barnett Formula to increase spending, devo-max for Metro Mayors, and an end to housing targets in areas with devolution.
This was bookended by a brief interview with Tom Tugendhat, a current leadership aspirant, and the aforementioned chat with Michael Gove, a former one. Both suggested their approval of the conference’s ideas, with Gove joking that what Berry proposes usually becomes Government policy before too long. Nevertheless, he made it clear that the Metro Mayor scheme was one the Government was proud of and hoped to extend.
That Gove continually raised Ben Houchen’s success as a reason for further devolution rather dodged the inconvenient fact that for every Mayor Houchen, Street, or even Johnson that this form of devolution has enabled, there has also been a Burnham, Khan, or Livingstone. Both Gove and the conference appeared unclear on how the mayoral system could be changed to prevent relations between Whitehall and ministers devolving into continual antagonism over money and powers.
Yet this should not detract from the conference’s success. I was continually struck by how levelling-up, rather than being a buzzword, was taken deadly seriously by the attendees. As Berry pointed out, there have been more than 40 government-led initiatives designed to generate growth in the North in the last 40 years. Yet Britain remains deeply centralised and concentrated on London. This must change.
With MPs and businesses as passionate and informed as the ones I met in Doncaster, one would not bet against it. That is especially as successfully upping growth in the North would start to produce the sorts of fiscal headroom the Chancellor and many of his MPs – from across the country- would like to see put into tax cuts. Fortunately, Sunak attended a dinner with the various attendees the night before, so I’m sure he has received the message.
And the Prime Minister? I do not doubt the importance of the war in Ukraine. Even if I believe our strategy is flawed, Johnson’s friendship with President Zelensky is impressive. But upstaging the conference he was supposed to be attending was a poor move a week after a confidence vote. Johnson’s survival relies on keeping MPs on side in the short-term and keeping the Red Wall blue in the long-term. Listening to the conference’s conclusions would be a step towards that, but it would have been better for him if he had done it in person.