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Tory Candidate Claims Labour Risks "Taking The North For Granted"

John Stevenson is chair of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs (Alamy)

5 min read

The Conservative candidate for Carlisle has said Labour is "taking the North for granted" and called for whoever wins the next General Election to continue the legacy of the Northern Powerhouse project.

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of the Northern Powerhouse project, announced by then-chancellor George Osborne to boost transport connections between cities in northern England and extend devolutionary powers to northern regions.

While the political language around reducing regional inequalities has now been transferred to the 'levelling up' agenda, John Stevenson, who has served as MP for Carlisle since 2010 and chair of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs since 2022, said continuing the legacy of Northern Powerhouse should be a top priority for whoever wins the next general election.

“That's the only way I think they're ever going to close the gap between the North and the South,” he said.

“My party, in many respects, almost ignored the North in the past. But now we have got involved with devolution, the levelling up agenda, etc.”

In 2019, the Tories achieved what Stevenson described as an “electoral breakthrough” across the North of England, winning seats such as Workington, Barrow and Furness, Bishop Auckland and Durham North West. 

However, the second YouGov MRP poll during this year's general election campaign, carried out 11-18 June, predicts that Labour will win these seats back from the Tories – and predicts that Stevenson will lose his seat in Carlisle.

“I'm hoping we'll have a significant number of Conservatives elected in this election, but I think in the future, the Conservatives are now establishing themselves as a party that is interested in the North… and there's no reason why we wouldn't continue to do that in the future,” Stevenson said.

“Where I think we can do more is actually what I always call ‘turbocharge’ the investment, and make sure that we actually build on what we've already done. And that I think will depend on northern Conservatives getting elected at this coming election and pursuing that agenda.”

George Osborne
George Osborne outlined the vision for a Northern Powerhouse in Manchester in 2014 (Alamy)

Describing what he called the “ebb and flow” of policy, Stevenson argued that different personalities in government had determined how high up the North was on the political agenda while the Conservatives have been in power. 

“It started under the Cameron and Osborne period. Once Theresa May took over it went down the agenda a bit, and then it came back up the agenda with Boris Johnson, and arguably, it fell away a little bit again with Rishi,” he said.

“There's a lesson there for future governments. If you've got a policy that broadly works, you've got to have the ability to overcome changes in personnel, and even changes of government if you are to pursue a policy to a successful conclusion.”

Stevenson claimed that Labour “take the North for granted”: “By the looks of it, from their manifesto, they're continuing to do so. I don't feel there's any sort of northern agenda coming from the Labour Party at all.” 

The term "levelling up" was seemingly absent from the Labour manifesto. PoliticsHome understands that shadow ministers have been discussing for some months about ditching the phrase, believing it now held negative connotations with the public. However, the 2024 manifesto pledged that the party would introduce "landmark devolution legislation to take back control" and widen devolution to more areas.

The Conservative manifesto, meanwhile, has made various pledges around continuing its "commitment to levelling up", including providing 105 towns in the UK with a £20 million endowment fund and extending the Community Ownership Fund.

But the Tories have been accused of failing on a number of previous levelling up pledges – a key component of the 2019 Conservative manifesto. The Public Accounts Committee in Parliament published a report in March showing that only 10 per cent of the money intended to regenerate local areas in the UK under the levelling up programme had been spent so far.

In a speech at Conservative conference in Manchester in October, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that the remaining leg of the multibillion pound high-speed rail route HS2 that would have connected Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester to London would be scrapped. 

Stevenson, however, argued there were other priorities that could be achieved quicker by the next government to deliver for the North. He said that while new mayors had been elected in various regions in May, there were still “gaps” in devolution in Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria which a future government should fill. 

He has also repeatedly called for a new East to West train line from Liverpool to Hull, particularly joining the major metropolitan areas of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds – which he would want to see named the ‘Charles Line’.

Stevenson has also made the case for a distinct northern minister to be appointed to Cabinet – a proposal which has not been taken up by any party manifesto for this election. 

The candidate for Carlisle said his campaign centred on portraying Carlisle as a “prime example of levelling up in action”, with the recent completion of a new ring road, a station refurbishment, an enterprise zone, and a new university campus planned to open in the centre of the city by 2026.

But is this argument working with voters? “If I was entirely frank, I would say that people are fed up with politicians… it doesn't matter if you're Conservative or Labour or others, they're just fed up with politics,” Stevenson replied.

“So to a large extent, I'm trying to emphasise that you also have a local dimension. I've been your local MP for 14 years. This is what I like to think I've managed to attract or achieve or help support in terms of growth and development in our city. You make your choice on, yes, national politics, but also on local politics, and await the outcome.”

Stevenson hopes he can defy the polling predictions in his seat, but if not, he said would want to try to find a different avenue to help to “shape that agenda” of Conservative policies in the North of England going forwards.

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