- Tory MPs in northern England are frustrated by weeks of botched policy announcements by Number 10.
- They say Boris Johnson’s government needs to improve communication and stop scoring own goals.
- One MP said there was “not disappointment as much as anger” about one recent botched announcement.
Conservative MPs holding “Red Wall” seats in northern England are growing increasingly frustrated by weeks of negative newspaper headlines, high profile U-turns, and tax rises from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office, some of them told Insider.
Johnson was elected in 2019 promising to “level up” the country, a pledge that won the Conservatives seats in lower-income parts of England where they had never won before. It was a result delivered by voters who supported his vision of delivering Brexit, tackling crime, and reducing immigration.
Now there is concern that the party has done significant damage to its reputation following botched announcements on several policies in recent weeks, including railways and the environment — as well a sleaze row involving a Conservative grandee, which dominated headlines for weeks and underscored existing tensions between younger and older Tory MPs.
Frustration from Conservative MPs has been particularly directed at what some of them described as Downing Street’s poor communication and insensitivity to issues that disproportionately affect voters in poor parts of northern England.
‘Not disappointment as much as anger’
One recent example was a vote on changes to social care, which dozens of Tory MPs refused to support because it would force people to sell their homes to pay for social care.
One Conservative MP representing a seat in northwest England, who refused to support the bill, told Insider it could result in many poorer pensioners with lower-value homes forced to sell.
“If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. It doesn’t sound fair and it isn’t fair. A lot of homes in the north are worth less than £100,000,” the MP said.
A second MP linked to the Northern Research Group, which represents the interests of Conservative MPs with seats in northern England, highlighted a recent botched announcement on railways. Both of these MPs requested anonymity to speak candidly, but their identities are known to Insider.
Johnson in November had committed a further £90 billion of public spending on railways — a move which they said should have generated positive headlines.
But instead, the prime minister faced intense criticism for cancelling most of the stretch of the HS2 high-speed rail line in northeast England, and outrage from many of his own northern MPs in northern constituencies affected by the move.
“There was a lot of — not disappointment as much as anger over how the rail announcements were dealt with,” the MP told Insider.
“Underneath it all, it was a really good news story which turned into anything but.”
A third example was the Environment Bill. The government was forced into an embarrassing climbdown in October on an amendment to the bill following a public backlash when the government rejected an amendment that would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to pump raw sewage into rivers.
“There’s actually a lot of good stuff in that bill,” the first MP, who was elected to his seat in 2019, told Insider. “But what headlines did we get for it? ‘Tory MPs vote to pump shit into rivers.'”
‘Weird to be linked to a party of high taxes’
Another problem facing Johnson is the fact that many of his MPs elected to northern seats in 2019 share Johnson’s social vision — like being tough on crime, restoring civic pride, and supporting Brexit — but not his economic values.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is said to privately oppose Johnson’s recent insistence on tax rises and preference for big state spending — particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic — and many MPs share Sunak’s view.
“It’s weird to be linked to a party of high taxes,” said the MP elected in 2019.
Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, told Insider that tensions over taxes and state spending were inevitable given the broad coalition within the parliamentary Conservative party since Johnson won the 2019 general election.
“There are genuine differences of opinion about economic policy,” Menon said.
“What Johnson did was create a social-values coalition. But the price of that is, if you’re talking about specifics of economic policy, there are going to be problems.”
Johnson’s leadership is not under threat for now. Even the MPs who are privately critical of him know that he is an election-winner, and many of those who won seats in 2019 know they wouldn’t have been elected without Johnson’s leadership.
But he is also under significant pressure to deliver on the vast array of promises he has made to his members of parliament in northern England, and without action soon, his leadership could face a sterner test.