Coronavirus has rocked the UK economy, but the Tories must still deliver on their pledge to revive the North, says RUTH SUNDERLAND
Remember the Red Wall? Rather like Brexit, the seismic shift in UK politics – when traditionally Labour seats in the North and Midlands fell to the Tories in the election a few months ago – has been eclipsed by the coronavirus.
Boris Johnson cannot afford to forget these supporters, particularly in the strange political and economic landscape that has emerged along with the pandemic.
Virus or no virus, the Tories need to deliver on their promise to bring back prosperity to the regions.
I’m in charge: Prime Minister Boris Johnson came to power with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to wipe out the Conservatives’ toxic image in the North
To do this, they need a proper industrial strategy that will promote advanced manufacturing and innovation.
Above all, they must help the young, whose prospects are most at risk, to make their way into good jobs, with tax breaks for employers taking on recruits, for instance.
Scenes on sun-drenched beaches in the past few days suggest some of us have seized on the pandemic to take a long holiday at taxpayer expense.
What a fool’s paradise. You can bet that is not the mood in Derby, where the townspeople have learned that the major employer, aero engine-maker Rolls-Royce, is planning thousands of redundancies.
This represents not only a loss of jobs, but of opportunity for youngsters striving for a coveted apprenticeship.
It’s also bad news for the Tories, who took local Labour seats in the election including Derby North, High Peak, and Dennis Skinner’s old constituency of Bolsover.
Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria is another Labour stronghold that swung to the Tories in December.
The major employer there is the submarine yard of BAE Systems, which is protected from the full extent of the economic slump by its military importance.
But Barrow, which scores high on most measures of deprivation, has been hit by Covid-19 with a very high rate of infection.
Places like the TS3 postcode in my birthplace, Middlesbrough, which includes some of the poorest parts of town with many already unemployed, have suffered extremely high mortality rates.
If the Government is not careful, one unwanted side-effect of Covid-19 is that inequalities, far from being levelled out, could become more firmly entrenched.
That would be a disaster for the Tories, who must also now contend with a more credible Labour leader, having had it easy with the ludicrous Jeremy Corbyn.
If the virus results in another hit to manufacturing and jobs in the North, people who defected from Labour to the Tories may start to regret their choice.
As the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, told me, the ‘never trust a Tory’ mindset is not far beneath the surface in Labour heartlands such as the North East.
Some cynical unions are even creating a narrative of callous politicians conspiring with rapacious bosses to make people work in peril of their lives to shore up profits.
This does not bear a moment’s serious examination. Of course there are some rogue bosses out there, but Britons no longer toil in a world of Dickensian cruelty. We have Rights with a capital R.
But the fact that this nonsense is gaining currency should remind the Tories not to take for granted their new friends in the North.
Measures needed include tax breaks for R&D and green tech, freeports and targeted help to attract big employers.
Johnson came to power with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to wipe out the Conservatives’ toxic image in the North. He will never achieve this if he allows manufacturing to buckle under the virus.
If the Tories squander this chance, they will not easily be given another.