James Reed: What will reshuffle mean to the battle for the North?

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There was a question that kept cropping up on the campaign trail for the recent local and European elections. Where’s Hague?

One of the leading voices in the Conservative Party, the Yorkshire MP was nowhere to be seen as it was left to other senior figures such as Philip Hammond and Justine Greening to rally the troops in the region.

The question was asked with a sense of bewilderment rather than malice. Why was the man who had stepped up to lead his party in one of its darkest hours in 1997, one of its most recognisable faces and articulate voices, suddenly missing in action?

Freed of the obligations of one of the great offices of state, there will be no obstacle to Mr Hague being in the frontline of the Conservatives’ campaign in the North in 2015.

He will hope his parting gift to the party he has served since a teenager 
will be success in the marginal seats across the M62 corridor that could hold the key to an outright Conservative victory.

And the campaigning in many of those seats is already well under way.

Labour is targeting a string of seats in Yorkshire that it lost four years ago and the Conservatives need to hold – places like Dewsbury, Colne Valley, Calder Valley and Keighley.

But defending its 2010 successes won’t be enough to return the Tories to power next year with a majority of their own.

In Andrea Jenkyns, the Conservatives have an energetic candidate contesting Morley and Outwood, a seat with a narrow Labour majority.

But it is not at all clear whether the Tories will mount a full-on campaign or do just enough to keep the current holder, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, occupied defending his own seat rather than spending time on the campaign trail elsewhere.

The Conservatives are also thought to have an eye on Halifax, where they cut Labour’s majority to fewer than 1,500 votes in 2010, although the fact that Labour nearly took control at the perennially-hung Calderdale Council this year may have dented their ambitions.

On paper, Wakefield should also be in the Tories’ sights given Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh’s 1,613 majority but, again, in May Labour took council seats off the Conservatives who lost their group leader.

In a further sign of the work to do for the Conservatives in Yorkshire, the party was relegated into third place in the European elections.

The Conservatives will take hope from the fact that council and European election results are rarely positive for the party in power in Westminster and there will be an expectation, rightly or wrongly, that the UK Independence Party will be less of a feature next May.

But they were a timely reminder that narrowing the gap on Labour in national polls and signs that the economic recovery has taken hold will not be enough on their own to give David Cameron a chance to be a Conservative, rather than coalition, Prime Minster.

General elections are 650 local elections and the Conservatives have struggled to find a clear message that will bring more northern seats into play next year.

And it was against that backdrop that George Osborne used a recent speech to set out a vision to turn the North into an economic “powerhouse” by improving transport connections between cities so together they have the critical mass to compete on the world stage.

There was a promise too of “serious” powers and budgets for northern cities that choose elected mayors.

The “growth deals” announced last week handing hundreds of billions of pounds for economic growth to Yorkshire will also be a key feature of the Conservative campaign in the North.

But politics is about the messenger as well as the message, leading to David Cameron’s decision to give the Conservative frontbench a facelift.

Having spent four years stressing the benefits of continuity in Government, Mr Cameron put necessity ahead of principle and jettisoned old hands in favour of younger faces and more women.

The Prime Minister hopes that voters in the North will stop to listen to what state-educated women with roots in Leeds and Liverpool – Liz Truss and Esther McVey – have to say when the appearance of a pin-striped member of the old guard might have sent them reaching for the remote control.

And new faces will help the Conservatives as they try and separate themselves from the Liberal Democrats in the minds of voters.

But in doing so he has freed articulate potential critics, such as Ken Clarke, from the strictures of collective responsibility and left them ready to attack the Prime Minister if the strategy falters.

Many in the party have still not forgiven him for failing to deliver a majority in 2010.