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What could solve the Tories' northern problem... before it goes the way of Scotland?

By Tim Montgomerie
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The geographical location of the Tory Cabinet members' seats. Not on the map are the Yorkshire woman Sayeeda Warsi and Lord Strathclyde.

Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer argues that the Tories have a problem with northern voters. The Cabinet, he writes, is "a very southern English affair." This hasn't escaped David Cameron's notice and he sees High Speed Rail as a big part of the Tories' attempt to break through in the north (see Independent on Sunday report). Rawnsley's main focus is the idea that northern England is getting a raw financial deal:

"Looked at from the north of England – or indeed by any fair-minded observer – this is grossly unfair. Income per head in Scotland is 99% of the average for the UK. Income per head in the poorer north-east of England is less than 80% of the national average. Yet Scots receive £507 per person more in government spending. Crunched between well-favoured Scottish Nationalists in Edinburgh and a southern coalition in London, the north of England has sound grounds for feeling aggrieved."

The review of the Barnett formula that distributes money across the UK - at the expense of northern England and Wales - could be part of Cameron's attempt to prove his northern credentials. At PMQs last week Mr Cameron didn't rule out such a review but there is a danger that taking money from Scotland would gift Alex Salmond exactly the kind of issue he needs to win an independence referendum. The Liberal Democrats who have ten seats north of the border also have much to lose from and Coalition policy change that appears to disadvantage Scotland.

Screen shot 2011-06-26 at 08.36.13

2010 General election results by region. Click on the table to enlarge.

The chances of significant advances in the north are very limited by the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, however. The best chances of Tory gains may come through boundary changes (up to twenty), in southern battles with the Liberal Democrats (ten to twenty gains) and addressing under-performance in London (where half-a-dozen seats should have been picked up last year).

The sad fact is Andrew Rawnsley is probably correct in his analysis of the new politics of the UK. We have the Tories dominating the south and ahead in the Midlands. Labour dominant in the north and Wales. The nationalists in Scotland. That may not change any time soon.


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