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PM to speak at northern conference amid urge not to ‘backtrack’ on levelling up

Rishi Sunak is expected to address a conference of Conservatives in the north of England later.

Left to right, Ed Taylor, director of public affairs, CityFibre, Dehenna Davison parliamentary under secretary of state for levelling up, and Ben Houchen, Tees Valley mayor, on stage during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse
Left to right, Ed Taylor, director of public affairs, CityFibre, Dehenna Davison parliamentary under secretary of state for levelling up, and Ben Houchen, Tees Valley mayor, on stage during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse

Rishi Sunak is expected to address a conference of Conservatives in the north of England later, as senior Tories seek signs of Government commitment to levelling up pledges.

The Prime Minister, fresh from his meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington, is expected in Doncaster on Friday afternoon for the Northern Research Group conference.

Senior Conservatives, including former party chair Sir Jake Berry, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and former chancellor George Osborne, are among those attending the gathering.

The one-day conference, which begins on Friday morning, will see Tory members gather to discuss devolution, healthcare and energy.

Ben Houchen, mayor of the Tees Valley, on stage during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse
Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen on stage during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse (Danny Lawson/PA)

It comes amid concerns that Mr Sunak’s party will struggle to retain some of the so-called red wall seats, spread across former Labour heartlands in the north of England, at the next general election.

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, among the speakers at the event, said that it was about ensuring that ministers do not backtrack on the levelling-up agenda pioneered by former prime minister Boris Johnson.

He expressed hope that voters would once again back the Conservatives at the election, expected before January 2025.

It was, he said, “human nature that people want to vote for us again”.

“It is human nature to want to be right,” he said, adding that there was still time for the party to win back voters.

There were some cheers at the conference at the mention of tax cuts, although Mr Houchen stressed the benefits of the current “fiscally responsible” approach by Mr Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

“As Jeremy Hunt said at the dinner last night, I think he’s said it publicly before… the state is growing at over 2%, growth is at 1.6%, that is not fiscally responsible. So we need to grow the economy and make sure the economy is growing faster than the size of the state,” he told the audience.

“I think we will be rewarded… I think we will reap the benefits of that very sensible fiscal position.”

Dehenna Davison on stage during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse
Dehenna Davison at the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse (Danny Lawson/PA)

Levelling up minister Dehenna Davison, who said that backing tax cuts was a “no brainer” for any Conservative, spoke enthusiastically about being “bolder” when it comes to transforming and growing the north of England.

The Bishop Auckland MP said while she was not in charge of housing policy, she offered her support to the idea of so-called “new towns” and garden cities.

“I would certainly like new towns, garden cities – I would like to see us be bold and brave,” she said.

“I don’t see why we can’t be building new town and garden cities that we would see as big commuter hubs.”

Ms Davison suggested it would mean the UK “nicking jobs from all over the world” and “keeping people in parts of the country that we want to see people in”.

Mr Osborne, who was chancellor between 2010 and 2016, warned his party not to simply “blame ‘the blob’ and the civil servants and the establishment”.

“We’ve been in office since 2010, we’re in charge of our country’s destiny, and we should stop blaming others if we don’t get things right.”

A key backer of the “northern powerhouse” slogan – a precursor to levelling up – Mr Osborne suggested that Whitehall is always concerned that central government might have to step in to bail out devolved authorities if things go wrong.

“But if you take that attitude, you won’t also let parts of the country take responsibility for their own future,” Mr Osborne said.

“And I think the Conservatives can afford to approach this by being much more ambitious on devolution. We should now be looking, as we fire up Northern Powerhouse 2.0, to give more power to local elected bodies, including metro mayors.”

John Stevenson, chairman of the Northern Research Group, said that the body “has continued to go from strength to strength”.

The Carlisle MP, in a message to attendees ahead of the conference, said: “We have continued the fight for the North, continued to push the Government for investment in our regions, and continued to ensure the northern voice is heard loud and clear in Parliament.

“Now, at this conference, we want your help and ideas to write our Northern Manifesto which we will launch at the Conservative Party Conference 2023 in Manchester.”

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