Tories face ‘annihilation’ in red wall unless towns improve, Boris Johnson warned


Northern Conservatives have warned Boris Johnson that voters must see action on his promise to “level up” the country or face “annihilation” in the red wall at the next general election.

Red wall Tory MPs told The Independent they are worried about the sluggish pace of infrastructure and improvement projects – saying they need be able to “point” to visible signs of progress before voters go to the polls.

“There isn’t a single spade in the ground yet,” one Tory MP said on work planned in his constituency. “We need to get spades in the ground and deliver more, because people need to see they’re not going to be ignored.”

Another red wall Tory MP said: “We’ve always known our seats are vulnerable. Politics is about ‘what have you done for me lately’ and Covid has put us behind the curve [on building].”

Jake Berry, chair of the Northern Research Group (NRG), warned that the PM faces “political annihilation” if he is seen to fail to deliver on the levelling-up agenda.

Earlier this week a Redfield and Wilton survey of voters in 40 red wall constituencies in the north found a 10-point lead for Labour over the Tories, with Wakefield expected to fall to Keir Starmer’s party at next week’s byelection.

MPs gathered for the NRG conference in Doncaster on Friday called for tax cuts “soon” to ease the burden on constituents struggling with the cost of living crisis.

But they also want to see mayors and council bosses given new planning powers to speed up building projects and boost private investment.

Mr Berry said voters who backed the Tories in 2019 need to see improvements in their town as they “look out the car or bus window”, adding: “We need to see more and it needs to happen quickly.”

Craig Whittaker, the MP for Calder Valley, said he was happy with levelling up money going into his constituency through the Towns Fund and Future High Street Funds.

Mr Whittaker told The Independent that the “challenge” was getting improvement projects started fast enough to keep the support of former Labour voters at the next election.

“People only start talking about change when they see spades in the ground,” he said. “Pledges are heard but spades in the ground is believing.”

Dehenna Davison, MP for Bishop Auckland, said the pace of decision-making in government was “shameful”, adding: “Devolution is absolutely crucial to get decision-making close to local communities.”

The NRG chair used the conference to call for a new “levelling up” funding formula so spending in the north can match London, and new powers for regional leaders to cut corporation tax and stamp duty.

Mr Berry said: “People who think the Conservative party now has a right to win in the north of England are suffering from a delusion. People lent us their votes.

“Parties who don’t listen to the electorate face political annihilation – the history of politics demonstrates that’s correct,” the NRG leader added.

(PA Archive)

A recent YouGov poll showed the Tories on course to lose all but three of the 88 battleground seats it narrowly holds over Labour – including the red wall constituencies of Burnley, Blyth Valley and Stoke-on-Trent North.

Adam Hawksbee, head of levelling up at the Onward think tank, said one in four people who backed the Tories in red wall seats in 2019 are “contract voters” keen to see change in their area.

“People in focus groups tell us they accept it will take years, but they do need to see green shoots, something to point to, to see progress,” he said.

Mr Hawksbee added: “There is an argument that hanging baskets in town centres and removing graffiti is superficial. But it unlocks aspiration, and it’s a downpayment on the bigger, long-term stuff.”

Mr Berry said he was “really” disappointed when Mr Johnson cancelled an appearance at today’s conference, just days before the crucial byelection in the west Yorkshire seat of Wakefield.

It was later revealed that the prime minister had travelled to Kyiv in Ukraine for talks with president Volodymyr Zelensky.


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