Boris Johnson was warned on Monday night by more than 50 Tory MPs not to backpedal on his commitment to “level up” Britain, as they claimed that coronavirus could worsen the north-south divide.
The mobilisation of a new Northern Research Group is the clearest indication yet of growing unease among Tory MPs over Mr Johnson’s response to the Covid crisis.
In a letter signed by more than 50 Tory MPs, the group says: “We cannot forget we must deliver on our commitments made during that election, to level up northern communities and create opportunity across our region.”
The Conservatives won a swath of so-called “red wall” seats from Labour in the north in last December’s election, but the pandemic has derailed Mr Johnson’s plans to invest heavily in the region.
Tory MPs were critical of Mr Johnson’s handling of negotiations with Greater Manchester over his plan to put the region into tier 3 restrictions, and complained of the lack of a clear exit strategy.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s refusal to agree to provide free meal vouchers during school holidays for disadvantaged children — pitting him against Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford — has caused more alarm.
The decision by Rishi Sunak, chancellor, to cancel his planned three-year spending review — the proposed launch pad for new investment in the north — further concerned Tory MPs.
The MPs, from northern England, north Wales and the Scottish border, wrote to Mr Johnson: “The North has seen a level of disruption unparalleled with other parts of the country.
“The virus has exposed in sharp relief the deep structural and systemic disadvantage faced by our communities and it threatens to continue to increase the disparity between the North and South still further.
“Never has there been a more pertinent and urgent political and economic case to support people living in the North. However, instead of moving forwards on our shared ambitions, the cost of Covid and the virus itself threatens to send the North into reverse.”
The MPs, led by Jake Berry, former Northern Powerhouse minister, called on Mr Johnson to set out a clear road map for northern cities to move out of Covid-19 restrictions, a regional recovery plan and accelerated “shovel-ready infrastructure projects”.
Mr Berry is a longtime supporter of Mr Johnson but, like many Tory MPs in the north, he has become a more critical voice of the government in recent weeks.
Like the European Research Group of Tory MPs, a Eurosceptic pressure group that made life difficult for Theresa May when she was prime minister, the NRG is likely to exert similar influence over Mr Johnson.
William Wragg, Tory MP for Hazel Grove, said: “This isn’t about giving government a tough time — the prime minister shares our collective priority.
“But there are compelling and constructive arguments we, as a group of northern MPs, can make to government about how it delivers on its promise to level up the north.”
Downing Street said: “We are absolutely committed to levelling up across the country and building back better after coronavirus.
“We stood at the last election on a solemn promise that we would improve people’s lives and — although the pandemic has meant 2020 is not the year we all hoped it would be — our ambitions for the country are unchanged.”