Is the government’s commitment to levelling up in danger of falling victim to another outbreak of Conservative Party factionalism?
The possibility has been raised following the Prime Minister’s failure to make an expected visit to a conference of the Northern Research Group (NRG) of red wall Tory MPs on Friday. He went to Kiev instead of Doncaster.
Those attending the ‘Levelling Up The North’ conference had a chance to enjoy a programme that included speakers such as the Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen and the MP for Bishop Auckland, Dehenna Davison.
But those hoping and expecting to hear Boris Johnson as well would have been more than disappointed by his no-show. ‘Absolutely furious’ are the words used by columnist Henry Hill in today’s edition of the ConservativeHome website.
‘It is another sign that the party is drifting back towards the factionalism that broke out under Theresa May,’ writes Hill, speculating that Johnson is probably in the autumn of his premiership.
If it’s right that Johnson’s choice of venue for a day out had more to do with avoiding the NRG than meeting President Volodymyr Zelensky, next week’s by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton likely had something to do with it.
The Prime Minister probably calculates that he can afford to lose Wakefield, a former red wall seat with a Tory majority of only 3,358. Losing true blue Tiverton & Honiton with its majority of 24,239, partly at least as a result of being seen as devoting too much attention and money to the north, would be another matter.
Avoiding the NRG conference on Friday may just the first stage of a gradual, unspoken betrayal of the levelling-up pledge. Money already allocated, such as the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund and £2.6bn UK Shared Prosperity Fund, will doubtless remain until the next general election. But the North East’s new Tory MPs will have a job on their hands to keep the policy alive after that.