Is Tory Cronyism Labour’s Best Weapon To Defeat Boris Johnson's Pork Barrel Politics?

Allegations of murky deals could undermine PM's promise to level up in the key Hartlepool by-election.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer meets local people in Seaton Carew in County Durham during a day of campaigning for the Hartlepool by-election with the party's candidate, Paul Williams.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer meets local people in Seaton Carew in County Durham during a day of campaigning for the Hartlepool by-election with the party's candidate, Paul Williams.
Stefan RousseauPA

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When the Tories romped home with an 80-seat majority in 2019, Boris Johnson said he was “humbled” to have won over so many ex-Labour voters.

“Your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper,” the PM acknowledged in his victory speech, adding he realised they “may intend to return to Labour next time round”.

Fast-forward 16 months and, amid the shockwaves of the Covid pandemic, Johnson is gearing up for the first test of whether his new ‘blue wall’ base remains faithful.

Most notably in Hartlepool, where Labour clung on with a 3,595 majority, having benefited from the Brexit Party taking a chunk of the Tory vote.

“The vaccine bounce is very, very real,” one Labour source said. “People are exuberant about getting their hair cut and seeing friends and family again.”

Keir Starmer hopes voters will contrast his candidate, Paul Williams, a doctor who works shifts at the local hospital’s Covid clinic, favourably against the Tories’ Jill Mortimer, a Yorkshire farmer with fewer direct links to the industrial town.

But privately, activists worry less about the impact of Johnson’s successful jabs rollout than they are another phenomenon on Teesside: “the Ben Houchen bounce”.

The incumbent Tees Valley Tory mayor’s election in 2017 came as a bolt out of the blue and he looks set not only to win in May but increase his vote share.

Locals credit Houchen with a string of government investments in the austerity-hit region, including Rishi Sunak’s decision to send Treasury jobs to now Tory-held Darlington, establish a Tees free port post-Brexit, a 9,000-job offshore wind development at the former SSI steelworks in the now Tory-held Redcar, and much else besides.

Underlining that little investment has yet reached Hartlepool only serves to boost Johnson’s case to vote Conservative, activists fear.

Or, as one put it: “The danger with pork barrel politics is that it could actually work.”

This is why the Tory cronyism row – which shot to the top of the news agenda when it emerged David Cameron lobbied ministers on behalf of Greensill Capital – holds huge political risk for Johnson.

It hangs a question mark over whether his government can deliver on pledges to level up the country, and perhaps especially in the minds lifelong Labour voters who wobbled before taking a chance on him.

Labour members are reporting that the issue has cut-through with voters on the doorstep.

“It isn’t just about what is being promised, but who the Tories will deliver for. People think they are treating public finances for their mates,” said one.

The latest revelation, and this week there have been many, is that health secretary Matt Hancock holds shares in his sister’s company, Topwood Limited, which in March won NHS contracts.

The Conservatives are riding high in the polls lockdown, no doubt buoyed by Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown remaining steadfastly on course.

But the PM can ill afford more bad headlines alleging murky deals and “jobs for the boys”.

Polls of Hartlepool voters vary widely, but the Tories are currently the bookies favourite.

The final result will have a huge influence on politics in the months ahead, not least because whoever emerges victorious will have a striking story to tell.

Will Starmer be able to say he is rebuilding the demolished ‘red wall’, with a doctor-turned-MP joining the green benches?

Or will Johnson, who this time last year was fighting for life with Covid, defy the odds and cement his success with another brick in the ‘blue wall’?

Nationally, a YouGov poll on Friday put the Conservatives some 14 points ahead of Labour, but with three weeks to go, it is all still to play for in Hartlepool.

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