If the Tories think Boris Johnson is their saviour in the North then they need to think again - Andrew Vine

Pretty soon, the voters in Yorkshire’s red wall seats are likely to experience an overwhelming sense of déjà vu with the reappearance of a familiar figure.

Yes, it’s looking like Boris Johnson is going to be back, complete with hard hat, hi-vis jacket and trademark bonhomie, shaking hands on factory floors and promising the north the earth all over again.

Investment, new jobs, levelling up, the benefits of Brexit – all the old chestnuts will be rolled out in the manner of a has-been singer whose star has waned trudging through a medley of his greatest hits.

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It is a measure of how the Conservatives are reduced to clutching at straws that last week it emerged Mr Johnson is going to have a role in election campaigning in the north’s red wall seats which delivered his landslide victory in 2019.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson leaves Dorland House in London after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. PIC: Victoria Jones/PA WireFormer prime minister Boris Johnson leaves Dorland House in London after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. PIC: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Former prime minister Boris Johnson leaves Dorland House in London after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. PIC: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

No matter that he squandered the trust of those seats in West and South Yorkshire, that he disgusted the decent people of the north by attending lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street while they obeyed the rules or that he quit as an MP to escape being censured as the first Prime Minister found to have lied to the Commons.

We’ll be expected to have forgotten all that when this discredited Premier whose administration was an utter shambles appears.

Except we haven’t forgotten. The Conservatives – and Rishi Sunak for that matter – must take the people of constituencies like Rother Valley and Don Valley, which put their faith in Mr Johnson, for fools if they think he has a shred of popular appeal left in the north.

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In 2019 he had a touch of the magical about his campaigning and a stroke of enormous good fortune in having Jeremy Corbyn – a man who even staunch Labour supporters knew was unfit to be Prime Minister – as his opponent.

But five years on, the magic has long been exposed as a cheap conjuring trick.

Labour is no longer a ramshackle party in the grip of the hard left, but a credible government-in-waiting. The north’s wish to see Brexit happen which also helped propel Mr Johnson to office was long ago granted.

But Mr Johnson’s status as Brexit’s great champion will do his party little good in 2024. The north has seen precisely zero benefit from leaving the EU, which is neatly matched by the total failure of his vaunted levelling-up programme to do anything to help us close the economic gap with the south.

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Mr Johnson can bluster all he likes on visits to Yorkshire’s old industrial heartlands, which all too briefly believed his promises to deliver a new direction and investment they had long known was needed, but it just won’t wash.

On the contrary, for red wall voters, his reappearance is likely to prompt them to ask even more pointed questions about what the Conservatives have to offer.

If a busted flush of an ex-Premier is the best the party can come up with to persuade people in the likes of Penistone and Stocksbridge or Colne Valley not to return to their traditional Labour allegiance, it illustrates both a lack of understanding of what the north needs and an absence of a strategy to improve our fortunes.

The hollow populism of Mr Johnson, whose record shows he never had anything to back up the extravagant promises, is of no use to Yorkshire, but it won’t be the only variety on offer.

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Reform UK is likely to run Mr Johnson a race in red wall seats, not in electoral terms, but in the volume and emptiness of its bluster, quite possibly in the person of Lee Anderson, the ex-Conservative deputy chairman who defected to the party last week.

There are those who think that Mr Anderson has a man-of-the people appeal which will go down well in the north, thanks to his back-story of being an ex-miner from just down the road in Nottinghamshire who was once a fervent Labour supporter. But we’re too clever to fall for that in Yorkshire. Plain-speaking we most certainly are, but Mr Anderson’s bluntness for its own sake is off-putting and his current party’s lack of coherent policy means it shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone who truly has the interests of the north at heart. Even so, Reform UK may split part of the Tory vote. If Mr Sunak and his team believe Mr Johnson is the answer to countering that, they are very much mistaken.

If they are to hold on to Yorkshire seats which went Conservative for the first time in 2019, they will do so only by persuading voters that they can make good on the unfulfilled promises of the fallen star being sent out on the campaign trail.

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