As we sat back and watched the latest unelected prime minister, Rishi Sunak, bring together his cabinet for the third Conservative administration in seven weeks, promising a cabinet of competence, compassion and integrity, it would be fair to say many people were aghast at how right-wing some of the new members of that cabinet are.
To quote Green Party MP Caroline Lucas:
“This is turning out to be a terrifyingly ultra-right-wing government. Where is the ‘competence, compassion and integrity’ the new PM pledged just a few hours ago?”
Sunak abandons the red wall
But there was also something quite telling about the cabinet Sunak has brought together – its lack of red wall and northern MPs. After the 2019 landslide victory for Boris Johnson, the so-called red wall (a line of traditionally strong Labour Party homelands) had all turned blue. These constituencies – some for the first time – had Conservative MPs.
This was followed by a lot of noise about the Northern Powerhouse – remember that? – and levelling up, which again had a lot of noise and bluster in announcements but very little actual change on the ground. We saw MPs in those red wall areas being given representation in government, allowed to have a say even. Well, up until a few weeks ago, when everything changed.
Polling swings away from the Conservatives
With opinion polls – and all opinion polls – the Tory vote collapsed throughout the autumn, to be fair it had been collapsing throughout the Johnson administration. Models on how those polls would translate to a general election show that most, if not all, red wall seats would swing back to the Labour Party in the next election.
Redfield and Wilton carried out a poll on blue wall seats – mainly across the South of England. It showed that even in those safe, traditional seats, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would see a massive swing in their favour. We would see a 2019 wall-collapse scenario, but this time across the blue wall strongholds of the Tories.
What we might be seeing today, in the building of Sunak’s cabinet, is a ‘cutting our losses’ with the Red Wall seats and a desperate act in saving the blue wall instead. The Conservatives know they have a big ask to win the next election, whether that be this year, next year or even in 2024. Better to save our traditional homelands than attempt to keep the newbies. ‘Why waste energy on a lost cause?’, might be the thought process. At least they’d keep some seats, and not have to endure a total wipeout of the Conservative Party.
Sunak’s southern cabinet
The new cabinet, at the time of writing, has two northern MPs: Rishi Sunak himself, and Ben Wallace, the secretary of defence. Both of these hold traditional Tory safe seats. The rest of the cabinet and their constituencies are as follows:
- Michael Gove – Surrey Heath
- Steve Barclay – North East Cambridgeshire
- Thérèse Coffey – Suffolk Coastal
- Mel Stride – Central Devon
- Gillian Keegan – Chichester
- Penny Mordaunt – Portsmouth North
- Grant Shapps – Welwyn Hatfield
- Suella Braverman – Fareham
- David TC Davies – Monmouth
- Alastair Jack – Dumfries and Galloway
- Chris Heaton Harris – Daventry
- Michelle Donelan – Chippenham
- Kemi Badenoch – Saffron Walden
- Oliver Dowden – Hertsmere
- Nadhim Zahawi – Stratford upon Avon
- James Cleverly – Braintree
- Simon Hart – Carmarthen
- Dominic Raab – Esher and Walton
- Jeremy Hunt – South West Surrey
- Victoria Prentice – North Oxfordshire
Have the Conservatives given up on the North?
The Labour Party will be rubbing their hands at the optics of this. The Conservatives, Sunak, and the government have ‘given up on the North’; they ‘don’t care about the North’ etc… An easy open goal, some might say. It certainly won’t go down well with voters across the red wall. MPs such as James Daly – Bury North – who had a tiny majority of 105 votes in 2019 – will be rightly worried by the change of focus by his government.
If the opinion polls are to be trusted, over the last year Labour has made many strides in gaining favour in the Tory heartlands (outside of the North of England). For Labour to wholly focus on the North, on the red wall, might open the door for the Conservatives to regain favour across the South, across the blue wall. Labour, as they have been doing, need to have an intelligent approach in both areas.
Of course, up to this point most of Labour’s work has been done for them by the various Conservative governments. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Tory party yet again implodes and carries out another regicide of its leader. It’s the Tory way.
Whatever happens over the next 24 months it’s clear the government has turned its gaze away from the North, towards its own self-interests. The Conservatives have seemingly given up on the red wall.
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