As Tories flock to Manchester for their annual conference, they are looking at an even frostier welcome than usual in the northern city.
Once, Manchester was at the heart of George Osborne’s promised “northern powerhouse” project and the end destination of the HS2 rail line. Northern voters continued to be wooed by Boris Johnson with a promise of levelling up as he sought to retain the so-called “red wall” seats he won from Labour in 2019.
Those love-bombing eras seem to be firmly at an end. HS2 was supposed to link London to Manchester in just one hour and 11 minutes. But now Rishi Sunak looks likely to put it on ice – to the fury of many northern mayors, politicians and voters.
The promised train line was symbolic for many in the north of England who have recently put up with months of disruption on the existing Avanti West Coast line, where more strike action is taking place on Saturday.
Sunak appears to think it is worth risking the wrath of voters despite the party’s relentless focus on retaining the former Labour seats in the north and Midlands won by Johnson four years ago.
Conservative insiders believe the move is driven by Sunak’s search for savings to spend on pre-election tax cuts, which may ultimately prove more persuasive to voters than a pledge on a long-term rail project.
“I don’t think Rishi is giving up on levelling up but I think he’s trying to do it in a way that realises the fiscal constraints we have,” said one Tory insider plugged into Sunak’s thinking. “Under Boris, his view of levelling up was just spending loads of money. It was meant to be about long-term ecosystems but there hasn’t been the time or focus to do that with three prime ministers in the last few years. To do levelling up properly, it was to be a decade of hard, determined work. What the PM is doing is reflecting economic reality at the moment.”
Others point out that after 10 years of promises on HS2 and more prosperity for the north of England, failure to meet those commitments will leave voters with a sense of betrayal.
Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, questioned the upside for the government of scrapping HS2, with any savings potentially many years in the future and voters already sceptical that an alternative east-west link thought to be on the table will ever be delivered.
“HS2 has become a symbolic argument for people in the north. For many people it has become about whether the government is delivering levelling up or not,” he said.
“If a south-facing Tory party dumps this project, how is that going to look? The focus groups show that people already feel that the government is not going to deliver on levelling up. It would be perfectly rational for them to then conclude that Sunak won’t do whatever it is he ends up offering.”
He said the dilemma facing the Tories was how to unite the elements of their 2019 coalition representing different parts of the electorate when Brexit no longer had the same salience.
“Which seats are they trying to hold on to, the leave-leaning ‘red wall’ seats or the traditional southern base? It feels very confused right now,” he said.
Ford also noted that Sunak appeared to be retreating into the comfort zone of appealing to his base rather than broadening his appeal to the whole electorate.
“Sunak feels like he’s offering a brand of traditional Toryism – things like tax cuts and smaller government resonate with his instincts. It’s the thread running through a lot of the proposals floated over the last couple of weeks, from net zero to inheritance tax,” he said.
“Politically this looks like they’re trying to get all the main institutions that support the Tory party back on side – the rightwing press, the activist base, business and wealth creators. It’s a strategy for unifying the traditional elements of the Conservative party, but not so much one for unifying the electorate.”
This strategy – rolling back net zero pledges, pro-motorist policies and considering more benefit cuts – has prompted concerns among some Conservative MPs that Sunak’s No 10 is entering a core vote “bunker”.
While polling suggests some “red wall” voters may back individual policies, there is a sense among this demographic that Sunak personally doesn’t care about their communities, according to focus groups organised by the thinktank More In Common.
These voters, described by the thinktank as “loyal nationals”, are the group with the biggest swing away from the Conservatives since the last election. They are also the ones the party most needs to hold on to if it wants to stay in power.
They find Sunak’s wealth alienating, and loyal nationals also question whether the Tories really meant to level up the country, with focus groups showing they feel the government has broken its promises. Even among those who do not like HS2, voters took the government’s plans to cut it as a sign it does not care.
Many northern Conservative MPs were not wedded to HS2 but they fear voters will take its mooted delay or cancellation as an insult. They are desperate to have solid infrastructure to present to voters.
The answer could be a compromise floated by the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, in recent days: accepting a delay to HS2 between Birmingham and Leeds in return for smaller and more achievable rail projects across the north.
Sebastian Payne, the director of the Onward thinktank and a Conservative candidate, said ensuring the connectivity of northern cities was the real key to levelling up. “Whatever is decided on HS2, the thing that can’t be forgotten is that you need to link northern cities better,” he said.
Patriotically onbrand, members of the Northern Research Group (NRG) group of MPs elected to represent northern England, Wales and the Scottish borders in 2019 are hoping that their preferred name for a link across the Pennines from Liverpool to Leeds, the Charles line, will catch on.
“People forget 25% of the English population lives in the north of England and a whole chunk of that is around Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford. Why shouldn’t we have the equivalent to London’s Elizabeth line connecting them?” said John Stevenson, the Carlisle MP who chairs the NRG. “I actually think east-west is more important than the next stage of HS2, albeit I would still like ultimately to see HS2 happening.”
As for the broader question of where levelling up goes from here, the NRG is to produce its own “northern manifesto” at next week’s Conservative conference, which will make requests of the government.
“We have done a lot but we want to see more done, and that’s where we want to see an emphasis on the government bringing the north up, because our view is that it’s good for Britain as a whole,” Stevenson said. “We’ve underperformed economically and therefore the government should focus heavily on the north and also it is a critical battleground when it comes to the next general election.”
He also said Brexit as a concept was still very relevant to northern voters “in a more nuanced form”.
“People still have not totally grasped that Brexit was about a feeling in the north that everything was dictated, at that time by Brussels, and there’s still a sense that it is now dictated by London. So why not bring it home?”