Tom Richmond: Tories must commit to long haul to win back the north

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TEN years after the then leader Michael Howard claimed – erroneously – that the Tories could win a general election without making significant inroads in the North, the Conservatives are still paying the price for this complacency.

It comes after the party finally announced its selection criteria for a tranche of urban constituencies in Barnsley, Doncaster, Leeds, Rotherham, Sheffield and Wakefield where Labour’s grip is still strong. Potential candidates will be expected to spend several months campaigning in these areas before local members make their selection and allocate would-be MPs to specific seats.

In many respects, this approach – in 80 seats across the country – makes sound sense. It gives party activists the chance to know their suitors and the presence of ambitious people might help to re-energise those constituency associations that barely function because of a shortage of members. It also provides the Tories with a chance to connect with people – and to dispel the myth that the party is stuck in its southern comfort zone.

Yet why make the announcement now – just 10 months before the country goes to the polls? If the party is serious about winning a majority at the next election, it actually needs to be looking to win seats in Yorkshire’s major towns and cities – for example Margaret Thatcher’s soul-mate, Sir Keith Joseph, represented Leeds North East with distinction from February 1956 until June 1987 while Sheffield Hallam was once safe Tory territory.

This is why this new process should have been put in place by Conservative Central Office in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election when David Cameron failed to secure an outright win over Gordon Brown, the most unpopular premier in living memory, because his party failed to make sufficient gains in the North.

Winning over sceptical voters takes time. If they weren’t going to vote Tory in 2010 following the deepest recession since the war, they will take even more convincing to support the Conservatives in 2015 after five years of austerity cuts.

Yet, if the party can get its foot soldiers out on the streets and explain the thinking behind Iain Duncan Smith’s pioneering welfare reforms that are intended to make work pay, the strength of the Tory argument might just surprise some people.

But it will require commitment and continuity – two characteristics that are not readily associated with the Conservatives when it comes to Britain’s inner cities. My worry is that the potential candidates will impress over the coming weeks and months – and then disappear as soon as a safe seat becomes available after the 2015 election. Perhaps the Tories should be seeking people who are prepared to make a five-year commitment – minimum.

TALKING of the Tories, I’m afraid William Hague has not made the best of starts as the new Commons leader – he refused to accede to a request from Harrogate MP Andrew Jones for a debate on the future of Britain’s further education colleges.

In the wake of the Government allocating £4m to Harrogate College, and Work and Pensions Minister Esther McVey urging middle class children to set up their own business in preference to going to university, this is regrettable. These institutions have a vital role to play from a skills perspective – but the priority still appears to be GCSE, A-level and degree results rather than vocational qualifications. Given that Hague is one of a diminishing breed of Northern-based Ministers serving in the Cabinet, I thought he would have recognised this oversight and acted accordingly – especially as the former Foreign Secretary is supposed to be at the heart of the Tory election strategy.

FAIR play to York MP Hugh Bayley for winning his campaign to persuade the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to keep the nation updated on flood protection expenditure as official statistics. I just hope the commitment is water-tight. The guarantee came from Owen Paterson shortly before he was sacked as Environment Secretary in David Cameron’s reshuffle. And the update from agriculture minister Dan Rogerson did not inspire me with absolute confidence: “We will now discuss how that change will come in and will introduce it as soon as we possibly can.”

My conclusion is this. If Ministers, past and present, have been straight with flooding victims, there will be no need for Benjamin Disraeli’s maxim about “lies, damned lies and statistics” to muddy the proverbial waters.

MORE rank hypocrisy from the BBC. After days pontificating about the gender balance in David Cameron’s Cabinet and suggesting that the careers of female politicians have been marginalised by the PM, the Corporation then appoints Evan Davis as Jeremy Paxman’s successor on Newsnight ahead of the show’s existing female presenters Laura Kuenssberg, Kirsty Wark and Emily Maitlis.

It’s not the first snub – the reshuffle of radio presenters on FiveLive shows a bias towards male motormouths like Adrian Chiles at the expense of talented broadcasters like Victoria Derbyshire Shelagh Fogarty. As usual, there appears to be one rule for the BBC – and another when it comes to the Corporation’s political coverage.

IF football wants to restore some credibility, how about Sepp Blatter revoking the decision to stage football’s 2018 World Cup in Russia – and moving the tournament to a country that obeys international law?

Ditto motor racing and the upcoming Russian Grand Prix – how can any major sporting event be played on Russian soil while Vladimir Putin is in the Kremlin?

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk