Northern Conservatives MPs have issued a warning to Boris Johnson, urging him “reflect carefully” on his election promises to “level up” the nation and announcing themselves as a major new political force.
A group of 54 backbenchers in the newly-formed Northern Research Group (NRG) are demanding a clear exit strategy from Covid restrictions, as well as a clear economic recovery plan for the region.
So who are they, what exactly do they want, and just how difficult could they make life for the prime minister in the months ahead?
The NRG – isn’t that a bit like the ERG?
Yes. The new group deliberately took their name from the European Research Group (ERG) – the group of hardline Eurosceptics who have pushed for a hard Brexit. The northerners are hoping they can have a similar influence on government policy.
Although the group is mostly made up of the recent intake of MPs who won their seats during the “blue wall” wave of 2019, there are four former cabinet ministers – David Davis, Esther McVey, David Jones and David Mundell – who signed the letter to the PM and appear happy to identify as NRG Tories.
Some 40 Conservative MPs publicly signed the letter, while a further 14 have had their names redacted. It’s big enough to ruin Mr Johnson’s majority in the Commons, if they began voting as a bloc. The Telegraph’s Gordon Rayner has claimed the NRG is now “a party within a party,” representing “the biggest threat to Boris Johnson’s authority since he came to power.”
What do they want?
The NRG said its first priority was “a clear roadmap out of lockdown”, which has seen Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Yorkshire and the northeast struggle under tighter restrictions than many parts of the south.
They also want the acceleration of infrastructure projects in the north, such as high-speed rail and ultrafast broadband, to boost growth and productivity. The MPs also asked chancellor Rishi Sunak starts “working on a regional basis” to create more employment opportunities.
With their letter acting as something of a manifesto, NRG Tories are determined for Downing Street to make the “levelling up” agenda something more substantial than mere vague rhetoric.
One unnamed Tory MP told The Huffington Post: “Levelling up doesn’t mean anything to anyone. I asked two constituents about it recently. One said: “Is it about Nintendo level up games?” The other said, I kid you not, “Do you mean the potholes?””
Who leads the group?
Jake Berry, MP for the Lancashire seat of Rossendale and Darwen and the former Northern Powerhouse minister, has emerged at the figurehead of the new group.
Berry was once a close ally of Mr Johnson and recently claimed the prime minister actually encouraged him to lead new intake of northern MPs.
“I think his exact words were, “I order you to go out and set this group up”,” Mr Berry said. “So I don’t know how he feels about it this week, but I think at the time he thought it was brilliant.”
Mr Berry is said to have felt left aside by Mr Johnson when the PM installed many leading figures of the Vote Leave team upon entering No 10 last year.
But the MP claimed there is no personal animosity behind his current “challenge” – insisting the NRG was not out to “give the government a hard time”.