DAN HODGES: Memo to Boris Johnson the fish hugger – the patience of Red Wall Tories is running out…
So, as I predicted last week, Boris Johnson has decided to ‘hug a fish’. Unveiling his Green Industrial Revolution, the Prime Minister also chose to toss in ‘trash a Transit’ for good measure. The sale of new petrol cars and vans will be banned from 2030, he decreed.
Having revealed this master plan for protecting the planet, he then turned his attention to outer space. As part of a £16.5 billion investment in Britain’s Armed Forces, a new Space Command is to be established.
It will be capable of firing off a rocket by 2022, he boasted. Though who at wasn’t clear. Presumably, ET had better watch his manners.
Then in the midst of all this protecting plankton and repelling Romulans, Rishi Sunak popped up. As we reported in September, the Chancellor is increasingly alarmed at the way coronavirus has blown a gaping hole in the public finances.
So in order to balance the books, he’s putting the finishing touches to a public-sector pay freeze. And as things stand, no one except NHS workers will be exempt.
So, as I predicted last week, Boris Johnson has decided to ‘hug a fish’. Unveiling his Green Industrial Revolution, the Prime Minister also chose to toss in ‘trash a Transit’ for good measure. The sale of new petrol cars and vans will be banned from 2030, he decreed. (Above, Mr Johnson at Billingsgate Fish Market in London in 2016)
Since the Election, Boris has decided to turn his back on ‘Red Wall’ seats he needed to capture. And the MPs who seized them. Take as a case study Nick Fletcher (above), newly elected Tory MP for Don Valley. At the Election, he flipped a 5,000 Labour majority into 3,500 one for the Tories. One of the issues he campaigned on was a new hospital – the current one is crumbling. A couple of weeks ago Fletcher got the news. He wouldn’t be getting a new hospital. There wasn’t the money
It’s less than 12 months since Boris stormed back to No 10 with an 80-seat majority. Last week, I went back and had a look at the manifesto that propelled him towards that triumph.
Aside from Brexit, one commitment leaps out. ‘We will focus on your priorities,’ he pledged. Those priorities – as he then saw them – were the NHS and social care, investment in schools, support for working families, a commitment to making the country safer from crime, and fixing the immigration system. And they proved to be the nation’s priorities.
But that’s not how Downing Street views things this morning. ‘People have got to stop looking for internal coherence in what No 10 are doing,’ one Minister explained to me.
‘There just isn’t any. They believe in Brexit. And they have this vague idea that they need to have some sort of levelling-up agenda. But that’s it.’
No backtracking now, Allegra
There was great excitement after Boris’s new press supremo, Allegra Stratton, announced an end to the Machiavellian spin of the Dom Cummings era, pledging all her briefings would be on the record.
But I’m told the commitment was actually an unfortunate slip of the tongue.
‘She got caught out,’ a No 10 insider tells me. ‘She didn’t actually mean to say it.’ No backtracking now, Allegra.
Ask anyone in Westminster – be it an ally of the PM or an adversary – and they agree on one thing. While Labour marched off to electoral oblivion behind Comrade Corbyn, Boris and Dom Cummings kept a laser-like focus on the needs and aspirations of working Britain.
And in particular that portion of working Britain that lived in the ‘Red Wall’ seats Boris needed to capture to secure a solid working majority.
But since the Election, for some inexplicable reason, Boris has decided to turn his back on those seats. And the MPs who seized them.
Take as a case study Nick Fletcher, newly elected Tory MP for Don Valley. At the Election, he flipped a 5,000 Labour majority into 3,500 one for the Tories. One of the issues he campaigned on was a new hospital – the current one is crumbling.
Once elected, he lobbied Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who visited and announced publicly: ‘He has been an MP for a month now, and has made the case incredibly strongly. I’ve looked round the hospital and seen that it is ageing, and that there are some parts dating back to the 1930s. There is a strong case to be made.’
Then a couple of weeks ago Fletcher got the news. He wouldn’t be getting a new hospital after all. There wasn’t the money.
‘I’m still hopeful,’ he told me. ‘I’m going to keep making the argument. I was elected on getting Brexit done and levelling up this constituency. But yes, in four years, if we haven’t got that hospital, it’s going to be very difficult.’
Imagine how news of billions being spent on a new Space Command and wind farms has gone down with those on the waiting lists in Don Valley.
And how it will go down in the other Red Wall seats. To some people, this loss of focus is a result of the simmering tensions that exploded earlier this month between Boris’s fiancee Carrie Symonds, and his key advisers Cummings and Lee Cain.
But speak to Tory Red Wall MPs, and they’ll describe how they feel that they have been ignored for months by No 10.
To some people, the loss of focus is a result of the simmering tensions that exploded earlier this month between Boris’s fiancee Carrie Symonds, and his key advisers Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain. But speak to Tory Red Wall MPs, and they’ll describe how they feel that they have been ignored for months by No 10
‘There has been a gap there for ages,’ one told me, ‘and I actually think we’ve finally started to get through to them. I’m told Boris is going to be out and about a lot more, and I’ve had more calls from them over the past fortnight than the whole rest of the year combined.’
A number of Red Wallers also welcome elements of the Green Industrial strategy. ‘People in my area think when we talk about green jobs that we’re talking about a man with a clipboard from the council coming round to check you’re doing the recycling. But if you mean skilled green manufacturing, then that can make a massive difference.’
But that optimism isn’t shared within the Cabinet. ‘There’s currently a more upbeat mood now that Cummings has gone,’ one Minister reveals, ‘but that’s not going to last. The problem is they haven’t got a clear idea on what the levelling-up strategy should be.
‘They think if we chuck a bridge here, or a new stretch of road there, that will do the trick. And it won’t.’
But perhaps the most telling assessment comes from the other side of the political divide.
Biden’s victory: Alarm for No.10 – but satisfaction for Starmer
Joe Biden’s victory has caused alarm at No 10, with the President-Elect reportedly viewing Boris as Donald Trump’s mini-me.
But it’s brought satisfaction to Keir Starmer.
‘Keir’s been watching Biden’s strategy closely,’ an aide tells me, ‘especially his choice between trying to recapture the ground Hillary lost or trying to broaden his base.
‘But the focus on those Blue Wall states like Michigan worked. That ties in with Keir’s thinking. He believes there’s no path to power unless we can win back Red Wall seats.’
‘What always impressed us was the clarity of messaging you got from Boris and his team,’ says a senior aide to Sir Keir Starmer.
‘But to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what they’re trying to say at the moment. Last week was supposed to be all about the big relaunch. But it’s been about as successful as the relaunch of Matt and Luke Goss.’
Until now, the Red Wallers have broadly been keeping their counsel. As new MPs, most felt it wasn’t their place to rock the boat and they recognised the role Boris played in their victories. But now their patience has run out. ‘Look at the people who came out to back Priti Patel,’ one told me.
‘There were a lot of Red Wallers out in front. And we were making a deliberate statement. We’re prepared to go out to bat for her and her crime and immigration agenda. But we’re not going to be coming out in the same way for this green stuff.
‘People thought Boris had told the party to circle the wagons round Priti. But it was actually the other way around.’
I’m told that over the next few weeks, there’s going to be even greater pushback. Red Wall MPs are leading the drive for Ministers to announce a cut to overseas aid.
They are demanding much less emphasis on the ‘green’ part of the Green Industrial strategy. And they will be demanding Boris drop the ‘woke’ agenda reportedly favoured by his fiancee.
‘We need much less emphasis on Richmond Park and much more emphasis on seats like this,’ said one Red Waller pointedly.
If Boris wants to continue with his ‘hug a fish’ strategy, he can. But if he does, his Red Wall MPs are putting him on notice. It may not be long before he sees the key to No 10 slipping through his fingers.