Why Boris Johnson faces a dilemma trying to keep 'Red Wall' voters and Tory shires happy at the same time

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Boris Johnson faces a "big political dilemma" as he tried to keep voters happy in former Labour 'red wall' constituencies in the North and those in traditional Tory shires, a leading academic has warned.

Professor Anand Menon, the director of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, told a conference that the Conservatives' General Election gains mean they now hold 45 per cent of constituencies in northern England.

Professor Anand Menon of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative

Professor Anand Menon of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative

The academic, who grew up in Wakefield, said these constituencies, many of which were held by Labour for decades, have "very different political priorities to traditional Tory constituencies".

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He told the State of the North conference in Newcastle, organised by think-tank IPPR North, that many of the new Tory-held areas have lower average incomes and tend to be more heavily manufacturing based.

Prof Menon said: "This will create a very big political dilemma for the Prime Minister going forward, because the fact of the matter is, the majority of Tory voters and the majority of Leave voters are not the left behind, it is the Tory shires.

"At a certain point, even if we assume that the Government is serious about its 'levelling up' agenda, the other part of the Tory party is going to squeal.

"We saw that slightly with Flybe when the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party said 'hang on a sec, why are we bailing out a company', we will see that again in spades if the Government seriously intends to borrow to invest in the poorer parts of the country.

"I simply have no idea which way that battle goes, I don't know whether ultimately Boris Johnson will try and keep the traditional Tories together, or actually prioritise his new MPs across that so-called Red Wall."

He added: "The message is beware the real danger of abject tokenism from this government launching glitzy projects that look good and might make people feel better during the short term, make people feel the Government cares, but actually do nothing to address the fundamental problems of inter-regional inequality that this country faces.

"Because so far I have to say nothing I've heard suggests to me that the government has an agenda that is seriously able to tackle the kind of economic problems the North of England faces."

Budget is first major test

The Budget on March 11 represents the first major test of Boris Johnson's promises to the North, the conference was told.

Luke Raikes, Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North, said the major fiscal speech by Chancellor Sajid Javid would show if the Government's rhetoric would transfer into reality.

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Since becoming Prime Minister Mr Johnson has promised high speed rail for the North, widespread devolution and a northern growth body, while it was reported that the House of Lords may move to York as part of his 'levelling-up agenda'.

Mr Raikes told the State of the North conference that the Northern Powerhouse agenda had taken a back seat under Theresa May but had been pushed by northern leaders.

He said: "2020 is really a new phase of the Northern Powerhouse, which we've been pushing for some time.

"The first test is the budget on March 11 where we'll see if that rhetoric transfers into reality. But really the big test is around devolution, will they give power away as well as investing."

He pointed out that the UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the world and that in the five years since the Northern Powerhouse agenda was created child poverty and the number of people in low-paid work has risen.

He said: "So they've been talking about the Northern Powerhouse for the past five years and this is what we've seen so far, so perhaps we can be excused for being a little bit sceptical about it."