How the Conservatives' £3.6bn Towns Fund could make Labour leader Keir Starmer's local election woes even worse

It was just before Christmas 2019 that Rotherham-born William Hague, reflecting on the crumbling of the ‘red wall’ in the General Election a few days earlier, put forward a vision for how the Conservatives could build on their gains in the years ahead.

The former Conservative leader said the victory for fellow Tory Alexander Stafford in former Labour stronghold Rother Valley was “the ultimate definition of a new political landscape”.

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Even Lord Hague may have been surprised by the comprehensive manner in which a farmer from Thirsk romped to victory in a by-election held in the old stomping ground of Peter Mandelson yesterday.

The new Hartlepool MP Jill Mortimer faces the cameras. Pic: PA

And the pandemic has completely changed the political landscape, leaving Sir Keir Starmer with a virtually impossible task as he seeks to leave behind Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn era and make a lasting impact.

But Lord Hague’s recipe for electoral success, improving northern transport links and equipping workers with the skills they need to thrive in the global economy, is one that could still bear fruit.

“Conservatives have to be able to show that they are achieving the revival of towns in the North that Labour failed to bring about,” he wrote.

And in Hartlepool, as well as towns like Redcar, Darlington and Stockton, where voters last night propelled Conservative metro mayor Ben Houchen to a big majority on the back of an eye-catching jobs and investment record, it’s easy to see the start of this strategy falling into place.

West Yorkshire will soon have its own answer to Mr Houchen as a metro mayor is elected tomorrow, but if Labour’s Tracy Brabin wins as expected it seems unlikely she’ll get the same voter-friendly backing from central government that Mr Houchen has enjoyed.

And in the meantime the Conservatives will be able to boast of the largesse they are doling out in places like Stocksbridge, Castleford, Rotherham and Dewsbury in the form of the Towns Fund.

All of which means that while there is still time for Sir Keir to arrest Labour’s worrying slide, this week’s local elections are unlikely to be the last blow to his bid to return the party to power.