John Stevenson is Chairman of the Northern Research Group, and Conservative MP for Carlisle.
As the dust settles on the reshuffle, you wonder what impact it has had on the public consciousness. After all, this is likely the last one before a General Election, so we must assume the appointments reflect the image that the Conservative Party wants to present to the British voters.
Clearly, the removal of Suella Braverman and the return of David Cameron says something immediately about the government the Prime Minister wants to lead. The latter’s return will be welcomed by many in the 2010 and 2015 intake of MPs, who recognise him as a winner. And whatever the wing of the party, there is no denying he also brings experience and a certain gravitas back to government.
However, individual appointments and personality changes rarely have a long-term impact. What really matters is policy, direction of travel, and a general overall feeling and impression about a government or party.
And the fact is that from a northern Conservative perspective, this reshuffle fell short.
For years and years, the Labour Party took the north of England (and indeed Scotland) for granted. They presumed that come what may the voters across the north would continue to return Labour MPs to Parliament. And for years, this was indeed the case.
In contrast, but equally as unfortunately for the North, the Conservative Party ignored large parts of northern England for years because they thought they would never win there. They believed that these northern voters were uninterested or actively hostile to our policies and ideas.
This all changed leading up to the 2015 election. Firstly, at the election, Scotland almost completely rid itself of all its Labour MPs.
Secondly, George Osborne introduced the Northern Powerhouse concept – an idea which came with the implicit recognition that the North did actually matter, that it had huge potential, and that it had been ignored for too long. These were Conservative ideas that resonated and appealed to northern voters.
Then, when it was the Conservative Party who promised to finish Brexit and fully withdraw from the European Union, huge numbers of northerners felt like their voice was being heard and their expressed wishes were being acted upon. They rewarded the Conservatives for this in 2019.
But where are we now?
The Labour Party are as complacent and arrogant about the north as ever. They still take the north for granted, offering little or nothing to the northern voter yet nevertheless expecting their vote.
In contrast, the Conservatives have an opportunity to build on what has already been achieved and offer an enhanced package of policies for the forthcoming election.
But are we up to the challenge? Is there a danger that we are reverting to what one might term a Southern Comfort strategy, once again believing the north doesn’t want to hear us?
We do not need to have an either/or strategy, blue wall versus red wall. We need to recognise that we can appeal to both, and have specific ideas that will appeal to the north without undermining our colleagues in the south.
Indeed, unlocking the potential of the north solves a lot of the blue-wall problems. The overcharged economy of London is the driver of housebuilding, service, and infrastructure pressure in the south of England; the north is the answer to these challenges.
I know that Conservatives from other parts of the UK will ask: why such a focus on the north? What about us?
To which the answer has to be that yes, it is certainly true that different parts of the country need particular attention – and the Conservative Party had better come up with some ideas for them. But it is only the north of England that has the population, industry, cities, and universities to be a true counterweight to London.
As one of the largest urban belts in Europe, the north is in the unique position to power up the rest of the country. This was always the concept of the Northern Powerhouse; to properly integrate the large strip of northern cities and so use the effect of economic agglomeration to turbocharge the northern and, just as importantly, the national economy.
The north bought into it, and the Conservative Party bought into it. But while there are still many ministers who passionately care about the north, and about levelling up these areas. But there are some concerning signs that the party is drifting away from its commitments (and obligations) to this important and unique part of world.
This re-shuffle is a case in point. We have a Minister for London, but where on earth is the Minister for the North? I find it astonishing that this position has not been established. If the Government believed its own rhetoric about unlocking the potential of the north, such a position would be a requisite.
Instead, the closest we have is the Department for Levelling Up, headed up by Michael Gove. For me, he is one of the best and most capable politicians of our generation. But he represents a seat in Surrey.
I do not think that the north has given up on the Conservative Party. But I do think that northern voters are desperately waiting for a reason to vote for us again.
It is not too late; with expanded devolution deals, a proper industrial strategy, linked up infrastructure investment, and yes, a Northern Powerhouse 2.0, the party can once again appeal to these voters. What a shame that the reshuffle doesn’t seem to point in this direction.
A stronger north means a stronger Britain. A stronger northern Conservative agenda would mean a stronger Conservative Britain.
I am surprised that the Labour Party continue to take the north for granted, but if the Conservatives are going to give up on appealing to the north as well, it wouldn’t just be bad for the Conservative Party, it would be a tragedy for the whole country.