Westminster Watch: Repaying the North’s votes

The new government is likely to invest in infrastructure – on the condition there’s enough cash left after Brexit

The strategy worked. The Conservative Party secured a decisive majority in Parliament and their opponents are in tatters. With 365 seats, Johnson has the biggest Tory majority since 1987. The Labour Party registered its worst result since 1935 and is now deep in a fight over its future direction.

The Conservatives managed to do so by pulling off an historic realignment of the political map. They made significant inroads into Labour heartlands and the “red wall” that stretched from north Wales to the north-east of England has partially crumbled. These are former industrial areas where the Tory brand is still problematic, but many constituencies for the first time returned Conservative MPs. The Conservative HQ belief that the Brexit cultural divide would trump traditional party loyalties was proven to be correct.

Attention is now firmly on what the prime minister is going to do with that majority and how he can make the political realignment a permanent fixture.

It is always worthwhile on the back of an election to pay attention to the first speeches and to re-read the party manifesto to get a sense of the priorities in office.

The first speech was in Sedgefield, the former seat of Tony Blair and a bastion of Labour’s north-east heartland. That speech recognised the unique nature of the 2019 election and promised to repay the trust that these communities had put in his party by investing in their region. His refrain was that talent is spread evenly throughout the country but opportunity is not – he will address that with significant investment to “level up” the UK.

Javid should have up to £25 billion to spend per annum on infrastructure

The Conservative Manifesto was designed to not trip up their candidates (unlike in 2017) and so was light on detail, but it is still a useful guide. The section on “A Transport Revolution” contains 16 bullet points with only one about aviation (and that asserts no additional public money will go to Heathrow) with the rest focused on connecting cities, predominantly those in the North and Midlands regions.

In theory, chancellor Sajid Javid will enable this through loosening the fiscal rules slightly to give more flexibility. Borrowing for “day-to-day spending” is not on the menu but investment in infrastructure is. Javid should have up to £25 billion to spend per annum on infrastructure (so about £100 million over the Parliament) and a good chunk of that needs to match the prime minister’s rhetoric.

Big-ticket projects
We should expect Northern Powerhouse Rail connecting Manchester and Leeds to get the go-ahead and for the Midland Hub rail project to also be progressed. These are the big-ticket infrastructure projects that Johnson favours (think mooted bridges to Northern Ireland or France and even the Boris Island scheme of old) and on which he can hang a narrative. These investments matter even more this time because his ability to hold his new Conservative territory will hinge on a sense of it having led to material benefits for those communities.

But what happens if the fiscal headroom disappears (many predict Brexit will see a drop in tax income)? That is when this new generation of Conservative MPs will need to make its presence felt.

There are suggestions that the new MPs are forming a group within Parliament to coordinate and work as a bloc. The future of the North when it comes to investment may well depend on them putting aside their fandom of Johnson (to whom, in fairness, they owe their position) and being prepared to pressure him when the time comes.

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