News & Insights  |  Posted July 29, 2022

The Battle for the North

Last night, Elland Road in Leeds was the venue for the first of twelve in person hustings for Conservative members in the battle to win the party leadership and become the next Prime Minister.

Last night, Elland Road in Leeds was the venue for the first of twelve in person hustings for Conservative members in the battle to win the party leadership and become the next Prime Minister.

The location for the first hustings shows how important the North, and the ‘Red Wall’ gains in 2019, could be in this contest between former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Whoever wins, protecting those gains will be crucial if the Tories are to achieve victory at the next General Election.

Before the event, both candidates briefed their plans for improving rail infrastructure in the North. There is unity across the region in campaigning for much needed improvement to transport and the big prize of improved connectivity driving forward economic growth, but how committed are the candidates to delivering that improvement?

The campaign to resecure the Government’s commitment to full delivery of the Eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) was mounted by a wide and committed cross party political and business coalition in the run up to the Government’s publication of the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) in November last year. The reaction to Boris Johnson’s Government’s decision to effectively cancel both was significant and a key test of levelling up was not met in a big set piece decision that was seized on by the opposition.

Re-announcing £56 billion already committed to the London to Birmingham leg of HS2 as new resources for the North didn’t help either- exposed at the time by Northern Powerhouse Partnership. The IRP’s promised £100m to ‘look at how to get HS2 to Leeds too, with a new study on the best way to make it happen’.  The Sheffield to Leeds leg was pulled from the IRP just before publication – and the proposal remains just that – theory only. The study is effectively still in the long grass.

The politics of cutting North to South capacity within the North and between the North, the Midlands and London by effectively cancelling HS2 and the East to West links via the Bradford through NPR in favour of upgrading the existing Trans-Pennine route played badly at the time and is an unsurprising battleground between the contenders.

Jake Berry, Chair of the Northern Research Group, who famously attacked the PM last year at PMQs following the IRP, has been pushing for Levelling Up to be an issue in the Leadership election. While it’s a challenge for both candidates given the concentration of Tory members in the South who are naturally more focused on the perceived negative implications of Levelling Up on where they live, Tory members in the North are more focused on defending their 2015, 2017 and 2019 gains that the current majority was built on.

Ben Wallace’s endorsement of Liz Truss hit the headlines after the hustings. But it is Berry’s endorsement of Truss yesterday during a joint pre-hustings visit to Leeds- following his earlier role in NRG conference attendee Tim Tugendhat’s campaign- that is key on this issue. The split between Tories on their support is indicative of Truss’s running on the issue. Sunak is currently ahead of Truss on open Northern MP support but only by a handful, and his supporters are relatively spread amongst longer standing Tory seats and those who represent seats that are red wall gains. Truss’s support, conversely, has a higher proportion of red wall MP backers and is ahead by a whisker on the red wall gains intake of MPs.

Former Tory Chancellor and NPP Chair George Osborne predicted the week after the IRP that a U-turn on the decision on HS2 and NPR was inevitable but digging into the detail of the briefings and what was said last night, it’s far from a done deal. Truss has only committed to working with Northern leaders and to delivering NPR in full- not the full delivery of HS2, the infrastructure of which is needed to actually deliver NPR. The briefing from her team on the IRPs failure laid the blame squarely at Sunak’s door – and he has not committed to deliver NPR in full but is instead focusing on the funding promised on how best to get HS2 to Leeds.

How does Labour exploit this battleground in a way that makes it a dividing line at the next election in the North? Labour leader Keir Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves committed Labour to the full delivery of HS2 and NPR in advance of the Government U-turn last year, and the Labour Northern Mayors’ well-timed call to Truss and Sunak yesterday to work with them to deliver NPR in full, on the back of the Transport Select Committee’s report calling for decisions in the IRP to be revisited, has put the issue fully back in the spotlight.

For Labour fighting to regain seats in key Northern battleground seats like Sedgefield, Darlington, Pudsey, Keighley, Rother Valley and Penistone and Stocksbridge, there are huge opportunities. And for the next Conservative Prime Minister- overturning that key broken promise narrative to the North could be key to holding on to the seats that their last majority was built on.

With polls predicting a Truss victory to be the most likely outcome, we are poised to have Tory and Labour leaders at the next General Election who were both educated in the North. Whether that will make any difference for the region and especially its transport infrastructure and growth prospects, come that election and beyond, remains to be seen.

Fiona Stanton