Jack Blanchard: Nice to see you, Mr Cameron - are you just here for our votes?

Prime Minister David Cameron during a visit to precision grinding engineers Kinetic Landis Ltd in Keighley
Prime Minister David Cameron during a visit to precision grinding engineers Kinetic Landis Ltd in Keighley
0
Have your say

JAMAIS deux sans trois, as the French would have it. Never twice without a third.

If the good people of West Yorkshire are wondering quite what they have done to be blessed – or perhaps inflicted – with not one, but two high-profile visits from David Cameron in the past few weeks, they can at least be certain of something.

A third, and quite probably a fourth and a fifth, will quickly follow.

It was not by chance that the Prime Minister chose Keighley as the location for his defiant “There Is No Alternative” speech on the economy last week, just days after his party slumped to a dismal third-place finish at Eastleigh.

Nor was it the random flip of a coin by a Downing Street spin doctor that saw Leeds chosen ahead of Manchester as the place for the Cabinet to make its big high-speed rail announcement five weeks before.

Those choices tell you everything about the way Number 10 is now starting to fix its focus firmly on May 2015.

For West Yorkshire is something of a promised land for the Tories, littered with the marginal seats which our archaic electoral system dictates they must target if they are to retain or extend their grip on power.

A successful engineering firm in Keighley (Tory majority: 2,940) is precisely the sort of backdrop the Prime Minister likes to be associated with these days, ticking all his favourite boxes – manufacturing, export success, blue-collar appeal – as he seeks to reach out beyond the Home Counties to the places that ultimately might keep him in Number 10.

And those well-off commuters living around the fringes of Leeds – those who will not see an enormous viaduct spring up in their gardens, anyway – are exactly the sort of people Mr Cameron expects to see the benefits of the £33bn HS2 project that will cut their journey times to London.

Do not be distracted by the chatter of “dining table” plots or backbench coups or Cabinet manoeuvring to unseat Mr Cameron before 2015. Westminster will always gossip, particularly when a party leader is under pressure.

The Prime Minister knows very well that the people who will ultimately cost him his job, should it come to that, will be the people of Dewsbury; of Pudsey; of Elmet and Rothwell, and a string of other bellweather towns and villages like them, where elections are won and political careers lost in the Pennine mist.

The stakes for Mr Cameron are high. Having failed to win one election outright in circumstances that politically could hardly have been more favourable, he knows his already-restless party will not tolerate a second failure.

And so the focus on these marginals will become relentless from here on in.

But question marks must remain over whether the Prime Minister really understands what is necessary to maintain and broaden his support in the North of England.

One thing should be abundantly clear to him – visits alone are not enough. Ed Balls is fond of recounting how Mr Cameron visited his Morley and Outwood constituency three times during the month-long 2010 election campaign in an effort to oust the Shadow Chancellor from the marginal seat. Mr Balls clung on, of course. It was the Conservatives’ failure to land seats such as those which ultimately cost them an outright majority, and forced them into the purgatory of coalition.

“I think I just embody to him his 2010 failure,” Mr Balls now says with gleaming malice, when asked to explain how he manages so successfully to get under the Prime Minister’s skin. “Every time he sees me, he thinks: ‘I went to Morley and Outwood three times. And we lost. And I didn’t get a majority’.”

I suspect there might just be a couple of other reasons for Mr Cameron’s seething dislike of the ever-provocative Shadow Chancellor, but the underlying point remains. The Conservative high command should realise they need to do considerably more than just hop on the East Coast Main Line if they are to pick up the extra seats they need.

Crucially, they must show they understand the specific needs of the Northern economy, a world away from a capital city which has continued to prosper in the toughest of economic climates.

When I asked the Prime Minister in January if he might take a more targeted policy approach to regional economic growth, however, he dismissed the notion outright.

“I think we’ve made some progress in the North,” he said. “I don’t see our problem as particularly a North/South problem.”

Compare that with Labour’s pledge this week to set up a network of regional banks, each charged specifically with offering financial support to local firms whose pleas for finance are currently falling on deaf ears in Canary Wharf.

Ed Miliband, of course, still has a huge amount of work to do to convince voters he is anything like Prime Minister material. But an increasingly imaginative approach to regional economic policy can only help his cause in the North.

This weekend, Mr Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, will be finalising the Budget along with their coalition colleagues Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander.

The Prime Minister was unequivocal in his Keighley address that there would be no turning back from austerity. We would be unwise to expect anything jaw-dropping next week.

But opportunities remain for Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne to show the North they understand the kind of support it needs.

This newspaper has been campaigning for a Fairer Deal for Yorkshire for almost 20 months now, with some notable successes – HS2; the Northern Hub and City Deals among them. But there is much more to do.

The North still needs considerable infrastructure investment; road improvements and new railway stations among the long list of demands. The dithering over carbon capture and storage must end now; the Chancellor must press ahead, with Drax leading the way.

And the few targeted economic measures which the Chancellor already boasts in his arsenal, such as his National Insurance holiday for firms outside the South East, should not be allowed to wither on the vine.

Most important of all will be Mr Osborne’s response to Lord Heseltine’s sweeping proposals for boosting growth in the regions.

The Tory peer has made a compelling case for huge structural reform of the way public money is spent in places such as Yorkshire, empowering local firms and civic leaders in a way we have not seen in more than a century.

Indeed, Lord Heseltine’s vision gives the Conservatives the opportunity to construct a radical economic policy for the regions which could at last fill the gap left behind by the tearing down of the bloated regional development agencies. The long-term effects could be transformative.

But will it happen? Even as I write, Whitehall department after Whitehall department is desperately to cling on to their budgets in the face of this devolutionary drive.

Mr Osborne must be ruthless in tearing the powers and funds away from them and putting local areas in control of their own destinies.

Such a response would help to show Yorkshire and the North that this Government is listening to them – and that the inevitable peacock parade of Ministerial visits between now and 2015 is more than just empty politicking.

• Jack Blanchard is the Yorkshire Post’s political editor.