Theresa May took her entire Cabinet to the north of England on Monday for an away-day ahead of the summer break, with ministers spreading out across the traditional Labour heartland in an attempt to sell the Prime Minister’s Brexit vision.
But it was a hard sell. A combination of dwindling jobs, ongoing rail chaos and cuts to council spending have left the Tories struggling to rally support. Back in 2014, Hexham MP Guy Opperman admitted it was “very lonely” being a Tory in the north, and May’s cabinet may find not much has changed in the years since.
But what are the main issues she faces, in trying to sell her Brexit plan beyond the M25?
Tory Brexit In-Fighting
Only three of the 29 MPs in the North East of England are Conservative, and even then, the Prime Minister can’t rely completely on their support.
Opperman said he was “delighted” with the Chequers agreement, which outlined a soft Brexit, and tweeted that everyone should admire the “obstinate persistence, the sense of public duty and sheer grit of the Prime Minister”.
But Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Simon Clarke responded to the Chequers plan by submitting a letter to the backbench 1922 committee (which he later withdrew) demanding a no confidence vote in the PM, as he saw it as too soft an exit from the EU.
And neither has Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, been an enthusiastic cheerleader for Chequers – retweeting Boris Johnson’s resignation speech which savaged the “miserable” deal.
Conservative Ben Houchan, who was elected the inaugural Tees Valley mayor in 2017, is also lukewarm. Asked whether Chequers plans can deliver the Brexit he wants, he told the BBC’s North East edition of Sunday Politics: “They can. Whether they will or not is a different question.” Many of his local party members, he observed, “want a more stark cliff edge Brexit” than the one on offer.
Jobs, Jobs ... Jobs?
The North East voted 58% in favour of Brexit, but it is also the region deemed most at risk from the possible economic damage sustained from leaving the EU. The government’s own internal assessment, leaked in February, concluded the North East would take 16% hit to growth under a no-deal scenario, an 11% hit under a free trade deal, and even a 3% hit should the UK stay in the single market.
Greg Clark, the Middlesbrough-born business secretary, has been one of the leading voices in the Cabinet warning about the impact of a hard Brexit on his home region.
He used a speech in the North East in April to push for a Brexit “free of the frictions” at the border that would damage the region’s large manufacturing base. “Most of the North East’s exports go to countries all across the world but the EU is very important in this,” he said.
But Paul Drechsler, president of the Confederation of British Industry, has starkly warned remaining in the customs union - something ruled out by May - is the very least the car industry needs to survive. “If we do not have a customs union, there are sectors of manufacturing society in the United Kingdom which risk becoming extinct,” he said in June. “That is the reality.”
The rail chaos that hit the north over the summer will have severely damaged May’s image further. Passengers were hit with hundreds of cancellations and delays after Northern Rail introduced a new timetable in May. To make matters worse, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was accused of “running scared” after he cancelled an appearance at a transport summit in Manchester.
Government figures in 2017 revealed it was the north of England that had endured the biggest cuts in government spending under May and her predecessor, David Cameron. Spending in the north fell by £696m in real terms between 2012 and 2017, yet the south of England saw an increase of £7bn.
Research published in the British Medical Journal revealed a 20% higher premature death rate for those living in the North across all age groups. Writing on HuffPost UK, Dr Hakim Yadi, CEO of the Northern Health Science Alliance, noted since 1995, the gap has been widening.
Excess mortality for the 25–34 age group increased from 2% in 1995 to 29% in 2015, while for those aged 35–44, northern excess mortality increased sharply: from 3% to 49%. In this period, southern mortality mainly declined.
A report from George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership earlier this year revealed disadvantaged children in the north of England achieved GCSE grades notably lower their their counterparts in the rest of the country.
The analysis showed the pupils in the region received an average score of 39.9 - 1.3 points below the national average and a full 6.5 points below their peers in London. In the report, Osborne warned May her government could “either resign ourselves to failure and say nothing can be done, or we can act”.