UK Politics

2015 political review: How the Tories returned to the North

David Cameron Image copyright AP

It was the speech he never imagined he would make, after an election win no one had predicted.

"I don't know about you, but it only takes two words to make me smile," David Cameron told the party faithful at this year's Tory conference.

"Exit poll."

It had, the prime minister told them, been a night of extraordinary advances, and "as dawn rose, a new light - a bluer light - fell across our isles".

Not only did the Conservatives gain an outright majority - their first in more than 20 years - but they picked up seats in parts of the country that had long been held by Labour, bringing 74 new Conservative MPs to Parliament.

So how did they do it? Some have attributed the party's gains in the North of England to Chancellor George Osborne's Northern Powerhouse strategy.

"It's a great time to be a Tory in the North," Chris Green, the new Conservative MP for Bolton West, told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

"Economic recovery, so many other positive things going on, and especially for a town like Bolton, with a proud manufacturing history, and the chancellor and the prime minister talking about the Northern Powerhouse so much, I think goes down very well. Now it's about making the vision of that powerhouse a reality."

'Danger lurks'

The Conservative brand is still toxic in many parts of Northern England - and Mr Osborne has been accused of cynically using the Northern Powerhouse as a cover for big cuts to local government funding.

But the plan is not just about money - it is about devolving decision-making, on things like health and transport, from Whitehall to closer to where the cash is spent, under the leadership of an elected mayor.

Image copyright Getty Images

And it is Labour council leaders who are working with the chancellor to deliver this vision - and a Labour politician, former transport secretary Lord Adonis, who has been given the task of overseeing the infrastructure projects that will be crucial to its success.

Indeed, some of the most sceptical noises about the Northern Powerhouse have come from Conservatives, wary of extra layers of government that will potentially be dominated by their political opponents.

"When new models of local government are seen to be imposed on areas, even if more carrot than stick is used, there the danger lurks," Will Wragg, the new Conservative MP for Hazel Grove, in Greater Manchester, told MPs.

Vanity project

Veteran backbencher Graham Brady, who used to be the only Conservative MP in Greater Manchester, says: "I think at the moment we simply have to wait and see.

"We have to hope, of course, that we end up with a mayor in Greater Manchester who is a sensible, moderate individual who will try and bring the city together rather than being divisive. If that happens then it could be a real step forward and I live in hope.

"But I would have liked to have seen some safeguards that sadly aren't there."

Another Northern Conservative MP was far more critical, telling me, on condition of anonymity, that the Northern Powerhouse was a vanity project and a piece of rhetoric.

As such, they said, it might as well be the hot air that drives the pistons in Manchester's museums.

What is the Northern Powerhouse?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption George Osborne, Lord Adonis and Lord Heseltine at York's railway museum
  • It is an attempt to turn the North's combined population of 15 million into an economic force to rival that of London and the South East
  • Connecting cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull by electrifying the railways
  • Mr Osborne's vision is to rival the major economic regions of Europe
  • Some people have complained that the focus has been too much on Greater Manchester

Former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine - who led government efforts to regenerate Liverpool in the wake of the Toxteth riots in the 1980s and now advises the government on devolution - admits the party has got some persuading to do.

"When I was first involved in active politics, we ran all those cities," he says.

"There's no doubt the Conservative Party has not found it easy to articulate its philosophy and its policies. I was often asked when I was in Liverpool why do you bother, there are no votes for us there.

"First of all it was right to bother. And secondly, if you are seen to be bothering in areas which are not traditionally your heartlands, it influences the judgment of people on a much wider constituency basis, often way away from the actually affected areas."

'Nose for power'

It is difficult to gauge how much impact the Northern Powerhouse actually had at the ballot box in May - a poll by Comres, for the BBC, found two thirds of voters in the North of England had never heard of it.

But its hard hat-wearing architect, George Osborne, now has his eyes on a different election - the one to choose a successor to David Cameron, which is set to happen before 2020. Could he do it?

"There will be a leadership campaign. I don't know who's going to enter and I don't certainly know who's going to win," says Lord Heseltine.

"But I know one thing about the Conservative Party. It is the most successful political force in the history of democracy. It has held power longer than any other equivalent anywhere in the world.

"They have a nose for power and winning it. I doubt if it will desert them."

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