As Boris Johnson celebrated victory at the 2019 General Election as so-called Red Wall seats went Blue for the first time in generations, he said he would make it his mission to retain the support of former Labour voters who had initially just “lent” their backing to the Conservatives.
When then Tory chairman Amanda Milling subsequently announced in October 2020 that the Conservatives would be establishing a new campaign headquarters in Leeds, she explained the move had a simple aim - “to make the Blue Wall part of the fabric of our party and our country”.
While the opening of the base has been slightly held by the uncertainty of the pandemic, her successor Oliver Dowden was on hand in Leeds on Thursday to officially open the new offices, based in Wellington Place on the outskirts of the city centre.
“For the Conservative party it is a fabulous facility for us,” he said. “I spend a lot of time in our London HQ and this is a much nicer office and much more spacious.
“We are recruiting people locally and transferring people up here. It enables us to be in the heart of areas we are serving now given the big gains we’ve made in the North and Midlands, particularly in the 2019 election.
“It also provides a hub for our campaigning staff to come in and out of as well as a place where we’ve got our digital operations, we’ve got HR, we’ve got compliance, we’ve got the full suite of activities happening.
"It is a sign of our commitment to genuinely levelling up but also coming to an area that is fast-growing, vibrant and an exciting place for our quite young staff to live and work. There is a great quality of life here and there’s a youthfulness and energy to Leeds.”
A core team of staff of around 50 people will be based in the office each day, similar to the levels in their London HQ. But Mr Dowden said it has the capacity for significantly expanded numbers depending on demand around the time of election campaigns. While the official opening only took place this week, staff have already been working in the premises.
“There’s kind of two reasons for choosing to do the opening now. One is that we have got large numbers of staff now in here but also because now we are hopefully through Covid restrictions, there is more of a certainty about the permanence of this.”
Mr Dowden said there was an undoubted parallel between the party’s move and the intentions set out in last month’s Levelling Up White Paper to move more civil servants out of London - a policy he notes has already benefited Leeds.
“We’ve got the Department of Work and Pensions just around the corner. I know Thérèse Coffey, who is the Secretary of State, frequently comes up and works in these offices. We’ve got the Government Investment Bank here and we’ve got some HMRC workers as well
“For too long there’s been a default assumption that HQs will be in London and you have satellites outside London. Actually, you can get more bang for your buck and a better quality of life, particularly when we are competing to recruit capable younger staff. There’s just a lot more opportunities for them.”
Prior to being appointed as Tory Party chairman in last autumn’s reshuffle, Mr Dowden had been Culture Secretary and was backing attempts to privatise Channel 4 - despite the station’s bosses warning that such a move would risk the closure of its own recently-opened Leeds headquarters with any new owner likely to look to consolidate office space and cut costs.
But Mr Dowden said he does not accept that line of argument.
“I don’t think actually the concern has much foundation to it. I think there is such a momentum and dynamism to Leeds that it would be very foolish for whoever owned it to uproot from Leeds, given all the dynamism of the local economy, the creativity, the bars, the restaurants and all those other things that make this a nice place to live and work. To say they would pull that up and transfer it all back to London - I just don’t think it would make sense to do that.”
The opening of the Tory office in Leeds came on the same day that bosses at Leeds Bradford Airport announced they were scrapping £150m upgrade plans, with the decision blamed on the “excessive” amount of time being taken by the Government to decide on whether the proposal should be given the green light.
Mr Dowden denied it represented an example of the Conservatives failing to deliver on levelling up promises. “Our commitment to this area is growing all the time, not just with the opening of our HQ here or in the investment in Leeds station but also in the Towns Fund where in the wider Yorkshire and Humber region we’ve got over £400m going in.”
Despite the Conservatives having a challenging few months in the polls in the wake of Partygate, Mr Dowden said he was confident the Tories can win the next election.
“I have real confidence that the Conservative Party shares the values of the British people - whether that is hard work and aspiration, whether that’s taking all this nonsense of cancel culture with a very large pinch of salt and being proud of this country or whether that’s about making sure we have a country that works for everyone.
“You are seeing the levelling up agenda in action with the opening of our HQ here.”
'Making the case for Tory voters in Cabinet'
Oliver Dowden says he is appreciating the opportunities brought about by being the Tory party chairman.
“The thing I really enjoy is getting out and about around the country and meeting people and engaging with them,” he said of the job.
“When you are talking to people you realise what they really care about is opportunities for themselves and their families and the chance to have a decent life.
“That is what motivates me as a politician.
“I see it as my duty around the Cabinet table to make the case for the concerns of the people that are supporting the Conservative party and it is an honour to be able to do that.”
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