A group of Conservative MPs from northern seats has issued a challenge to Boris Johnson to make good on his election-time promises to “level up” disadvantaged parts of the country.
Warning that the coronavirus pandemic risks widening the north/south divide and “sending the north into reverse”, the Northern Research Group said its first priority was “a clear roadmap out of lockdown”, which has seen areas like Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Yorkshire and the northeast struggle under tighter restrictions than many parts of the south.
The 54 MPs rejected the mantle of rebels, insisting they were not aiming to “give the government a hard time.
But their letter to the prime minister reflects growing concern that the appeal which attracted voters to Tories in a string of so-called “Red Wall” Labour seats has ebbed away since last December’s election.
And Labour said that it was a sign that “even Boris Johnson’s own MPs know that he cannot be trusted to deliver on his promises”.
NRG leader and former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, MP for the Lancashire seat of Rossendale and Darwen, said: “Our party’s return to government in December was won on the back of hard-working people in constituencies like ours who backed the Conservatives for the first time in a generation, and who did so on the promise that they would not be forgotten.
“We cannot forget that we must deliver on our commitments made during that election, to level up northern communities and create opportunity across our region.”
The NRG said that, with no end in sight to coronavirus restrictions, local economies in the north face continued adversity, with businesses closing and jobs lost.
“The north has seen a level of disruption unparalleled with other parts of the country,” said Mr Berry. “The virus has exposed in sharp relief the deep structural and systemic disadvantage faced by our communities and it threatens to continue to increase the disparity between the north and south still further.
“Our constituents have been some of the hardest hit by this virus with many losing jobs, businesses, and livelihoods.
“Never has there been a more pertinent and urgent political and economic case to support people living in the north. However, instead of moving forwards on our shared ambitions, the cost of Covid and the virus itself threatens to send the north into reverse.”
Mr Berry said the group’s priorities were: A clear roadmap to lower tiers of the Covid alert system and the removal of restrictions altogether.
The acceleration of shovel-ready infrastructure projects to boost growth and productivity.
A Northern Economic Recovery Plan.
Mr Berry called on the PM to “work with us to deliver on our shared commitment to levelling up northern communities and build back better”.
William Wragg, the Tory MP for the Greater Manchester seat of Hazel Grove, added: “We have long needed a good deal for the north from the government and the virus has only exacerbated that need.
“This isn’t about giving government a tough time - the prime minister shares our collective priority. But there are compelling and constructive arguments we, as a group of Northern MPs, can make to government about how it delivers on its promise to level up the North.”
Some 40 Tory MPs signed the letter, while another 14 supporters had their names redacted, said the NRG.
A No 10 spokesman said: “We are absolutely committed to levelling up across the country and building back better after coronavirus.
“We stood at the last election on a solemn promise that we would improve people’s lives, and although the pandemic has meant 2020 is not the year we all hoped it would be, our ambitions for the country are unchanged.”
But Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson said: “Even Boris Johnson’s own MPs know that he cannot be trusted to deliver on his promises.
“The government has been treating local communities with contempt. The decision not to extend free school meals is the clearest sign yet that the Conservatives have the wrong priorities and are not on the side of British families.”