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Jayne Dowle: Tories must look North to escape the dead hand of Brexit rows

Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip arriving for the Conservative Party annual conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham.
Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip arriving for the Conservative Party annual conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham.
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I REMEMBER when the leader of the Conservative Party approached the annual conference with a clear agenda and a full set of policies ready to unveil to the world.

Not so in 2018. Battered by Brexit negotiations, dismayed by Jeremy Corbyn’s surge in popularity following his own conference, Theresa May faces an onslaught of opinions on how to proceed from all sides of her own party.

Theresa May has still to recover her poise since launching the Conservative Party's election manifesto in Halifax in May last year.

Theresa May has still to recover her poise since launching the Conservative Party's election manifesto in Halifax in May last year.

Former skills minister Robert Halfon offers a useful summary on the Conservative Home website: “Failing railways. Increased homelessness on our streets. Families struggling – despite working every day. Our infrastructure under strain and potholes across our roads. High streets closing as traditional shopping is swooped up by Amazon on the internet. Crime and anti-social behaviour on the rise. They (Labour) are speaking to the problems faced by many. We too often speak only for the few.”

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Nowhere is this more apparent than in the North of England. The next six months are crucial to the future of Great Britain. If Mrs May is to continue leading us forward, she must create the most stable and broadest base of operations.

Also, rumours of a snap election before the EU withdrawal in March refuse to die. If this was to happen any time soon, support for her party in the North is by no means secure. In our region, there was a swing from Conservative to Labour in more than half of all constituencies at last year’s election.

Theresa May during a Cabinet away-day to the North East. What more can she do for the North?

Theresa May during a Cabinet away-day to the North East. What more can she do for the North?

Nothing much suggests that this situation would be reversed in any future poll. However, there is the opportunity in Birmingham this week to at least address some of those concerns pertinent to us.

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While it is important for all politicians to recognise that there are matters which are especially important to the North – including regional devolution, the shocking state of the rail network and serious worries from the rural community regarding EU withdrawal – it is reductive to think of us purely in terms of a place entirely separate from the rest of the UK.

This is perhaps where the flaw lies in the concept of the Northern Powerhouse, introduced by the former Chancellor, George Osborne. Our needs are particular, but to regard us entirely as a stand-alone entity simply ramifies the divisions between North and South. We’re treated as foreign country half the time and we shouldn’t be.

This was brought home sharply last week when scores of London politicos and journalists suffered the full brunt of Northern rail chaos on their way back to the capital from Labour’s conference in Liverpool. Twitter erupted in a storm of anguish as passengers were diverted to Leeds and discovered that it can take 75 minutes to cross the Pennines.

A clever politician would see the biggest possible picture and devise and implement plans to bring all areas of the country together under one umbrella, yet flexible enough to allow a degree of autonomy. Admittedly, this presents a difficult balancing act when certain regions, Yorkshire included, are pressing for devolution.

However, it is not beyond the realms of imagination to create a framework in which investment and administration is implemented to allow each part of the country to play a fuller part in economic growth, educational opportunities and cultural life.

We need far less predictable stubbornness from senior Conservatives such as Transport Secretary Chris Grayling on this. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if conference threw up some interesting new faces and opinions? Looking at some of the programmes for fringe events, there are vital topics such as tuition fees up for debate, but I doubt we’ll hear much of what the millennials have to say.

This is no time for the Conservatives to suffer a lack of confidence. Many voters in the North are dismayed by the radicalism of Corbyn and his acolytes. With Labour moderates apparently petrified, in all senses, now would be the ideal time to present a modern, caring Conservatism as a credible alternative to nationalisation and higher taxes.

And let’s not forget this key point. The only way for the Conservatives to avoid repeating that wounding 2017 election result is to gain more seats in the North. To do this, they simply must make themselves appealing to the widest possible demographic.

However, Mrs May could do worse than remind herself that she entered No 10 pledging to address voters’ everyday concerns, tackle “burning injustices” and offer more support to those who were “just about managing”.

She promised to tackle anti-social behaviour and domestic violence and give every child the opportunity to make the best of themselves. If she could find a way to raise her party above the dead hand of Brexit, and shrug off the internal opposition and inertia which has dogged her premiership, she might find a Northern audience willing to listen.