Northern Tory MPs today made a series of demands of ministers – including tax cuts, more local powers and extra cash – as they gathered for a ‘Red Wall’ conference in the absence of Boris Johnson.
The influential 80-strong Northern Research Group (NRG) of Conservative MPs put pressure on the Prime Minister and Chancellor Rishi Sunak to deliver on their ‘levelling up’ agenda amid the cost-of-living crisis.
At their inaugral conference in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, NRG chair Jake Berry unveiled the group’s ‘mini-manifesto’.
This included greater devolution of powers to local areas – including the right to lower taxes – the scrapping of central house-building targets, and the creation of two ‘Voxbridge’ vocational institutions in the North to rival Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Mr Berry also questioned why the Treasury was creating a new northern campus in Darlington, when the whole Whitehall department could move to the North instead and have a smaller London campus.
The PM had been due to address MPs at the NRG conference but instead made a surprise visit to Ukrainian capital Kyiv this afternoon.
It had been suggested that Mr Johnson’s appearance in Doncaster would have been an opportunity for him to build bridges with Tory MPs after his battering in a no-confidence vote earlier this month.
In Mr Johnson’s absence, senior Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat did not rule out a leadership bid and told the conference: ‘We should offer ourselves forward for service’.
The influential 80-strong Northern Research Group (NRG) of Conservative MPs put pressure on the Prime Minister and Chancellor Rishi Sunak
At the Northern Research Group’s inaugral conference in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, chair Jake Berry unveiled their ‘mini-manifesto’
In the PM’s absence from the conference, senior Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat did not rule out a leadership bid
Following the Tories’ success in Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ areas at the 2019 general election, the NRG have become an influential voice within the party.
Those eyeing a future Conservative leadership bid are said to be trying to woo the group ahead of any contest.
In his speech to the conference, Mr Berry warned it would be a ‘mistake’ to see the decision by former Labour voters to switch to the Tories in Red Wall areas in 2019 as a ‘permanent’ change.
He took aim at the current tax burden on Britons, which is set to hit its highest level since the late 1940s.
In a strident message to Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak, the former Northern Powerhouse minister called for the Tories to ‘drive down taxes to level up the North’.
‘It’s time to stop talking about being the party of low tax, it’s time to be a Government of low tax,’ the Rossendale and Darwen MP said.
Calling for devolved areas to be able to set their own levels of tax, Mr Berry noted how there were almost as many people living in Manchester as Wales – but only the latter has power over tax.
He demanded that Mr Johnson establish a ‘devo-max Government’ to ‘give local areas the powers they need to set their own course’.
The NRG also want a new ‘levelling up formula’ to send extra cash to northern areas.
In a warning to the Tories, a recent poll of Red Wall voters revealed nearly half (46 per cent) plan to back Labour at a next general election
Mr Tugendhat – the chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee – represents a Kent constituency but used his appearance in front of Northern Tories to burnish his leadership credentials.
He told the conference he saw ‘extraordinary opportunity’ in the North and claimed ‘the conversation in conservatism has for too long been about finance’, rather than manufacturing or industry.
Asked whether he would rule out a run for the Tory leadership himself, Mr Tugendhat added: ‘No, I won’t rule it out. And I won’t rule it out because I think that we should be ambitious for ourselves, for our communities and our country.
‘I think that we should offer ourselves forward for service.’
Mr Tugendhat also reinforced calls for tax cuts, and said they should centre on reducing the soaring price of fuel.
He told the conference, as an MP on an £84,000 salary, that he was ‘in a relatively comfortable position’.
But he added: ‘I can feel the rise in heating costs, I can feel the rise in fuel costs. Two pounds a litre is something I notice when I’m filling up the car.
‘Looking at the way in which we charge tax on fuel is incredibly important because the feed through of that into every other area of the economy is enormous.’