I am veering back to harder politics now, and away from the whimsies of lost communities, past folk customs and a forgotten 1930s history on Teesside only to come up against the much vaunted ‘Red Wall’,
I start with a proposition which few now doubt – although those few just may have the last laugh. This is that Boris Johnson, as an individual and as Prime Minister, will soon be history. That then leads to the inference that whoever succeeds him in Number 10 Downing Street via the internal processes of the Tory Party then has to make one key, instant decision; do they go for a quick election, or hang on in some Micawber-ish hope of something – anything – turning. I will opt for the former and explain why. The inevitable conclusion of that is that we then fight that election on our present constituency boundaries; that, at least, is inescapable.
So, what then of the Red Wallers on Teesside and County Durham? I am, alas, deficient in knowledge of possible outcomes in Northumberland, which others will have to fill me in on, so have come to the view that (with one possible exception) they all stay to fight, and then seek outcomes on an individual constituency basis.
Will Johnson go?
Johnson going? He has to. We are only a fortnight into the New Year and already we have seen his first outing at the despatch box during Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) crumble under the gimlet-eyed, sledgehammer approach of Angela Raynor who played him like an expert angler reeling in an utterly exhausted salmon.
The following day he was, firstly, forensically gutted by the quality press for telling a series of stunning whoppers to the House of Commons (for example, that the Warm Homes Grant was £410 per week, when it is in fact set at a maximum of £410 per year), this followed hours later by incontrovertible proof that the refurbishment of his grace and favour Downing Street was sadly deficient in financial probity. Now it is BYOB partygate time…
The second proposition then follows – the inevitable leadership election. Does the winning candidate take advantage of the concomitant temporary blip in popularity in the Opinion Polls to take a punt on an early General Election, or hang on?
My take is that (if the new leader has any eye for recent history) they will go early. Look at the preceding analogies; Jim Callaghan in 1979, after wading knee deep through ordure, arrives at the foot of the new financial sunlit uplands in 1978 – and retreats to greet the inevitability of losing a wafer-thin majority the year after.
Subsequently, and nearer to our present time, Gordon Brown who, having played a blinder in saving a nation from a financial crisis so deep that wage cheques could have been frozen by the banks and holes in the wall locked down, looked into some opaque mist choosing to hang on for the inevitable denouement of the 2015 General Election and ‘Clegg-mania’. So, to an early, probably autumn, contest this year at least 18 months before the Boundary Review takes effect. And I feel this is also the working assumption of the higher echelons of the Labour Party who are, apparently, now beavering away on selections starting this spring.
Now to the meat and gravy. What of the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Tory newcomers of 2019, or even of 2021 if we count Jill Mortimer in Hartlepool? No wise greybeards here – the nearest is Simon Clarke who gained his Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland seat in the dim and distant past that was Theresa May’s majority losing election of June 2017. I am going to make the assumption that all of them – with one possible exception, who I’ll come to, will stay to fight their seats.
Matt Vickers, Stockton South
Let’s start in a clockwise direction from 6pm at the bottom of the clock face – Matt Vickers, Member of Parliament for Stockton South. Matt will fight like fury. He knows that recent housing developments (which naturally in a NIMBYish fashion, he always opposed in Stockton’s council chamber when he was there) benefit him. He knows above all, that if he wins against the tide this time, the boundary changes will probably bequeath him as a sitting MP, one of the safest Tory seats in the NE by handing big chunks of gritty Thornaby back to Labour to merely pile on top of their majorities in inner Teesside. However, he has been somewhat silly in his public relations. Newly aspirational home owners in Yarm and Ingleby Barwick expect action on rising household costs – not piffle about Parmo – a dish most of them would shudder at eating. I think he’ll go under, but he’ll fight every inch of the way.
Peter Gibson, Darlington
Eight o’clock on the dial brings us to Darlington’s Peter Gibson; an interesting one. Boundary changes after any potential election this year will be beneficial to a blue rosette wearer, with the long overdue change to reflect the whole borough as one constituency – including the affluent villages to the north of the town which, for some ancient reason, were always gifted to Sedgefield. The local Labour Party consistently opposed this, for the obvious reason; so the instinct should be to fight.
But will Peter in his heart want to get down and dirty during the campaign? After all, in economic terms I suppose he can argue for a new Amazon depot, but brown paper parcels count for little against the loss of the iconic Cleveland Bridge plant, now knocked down along with a its century long history knocked and sold to scrap merchants. I am also aware that deep behind his thick horn-rimmed glasses, he’s a sensitive soul, and I know his middle-class sensibilities have been shaken by the gutter politics of the extremes – much of it with a distinct homophobic tinge. Indeed, no one in public office should have to deal with faeces pushed through their office letter box.
Frankly, the thought of going back to the past life of being a competent and respected country solicitor, working out of a high windowed townhouse in Thirsk (as the namesake of Thirsk & Malton constituency) or Bedale (set to remain in Richmond, Yorks/Rishi Sunak’s constituency) is one that may ultimately have its rewards in terms of offering a far more rounded life.
Dehenna Davison. Bishop Auckland
Ten o’clock on the clock face brings us to the inimitable and seemingly ubiquitous Dehenna Davison, MP for Bishop Auckland. Her views are anathema to me, but I have to be honest and admit that at the age of only 28, when I was merely a crane driver in a steel melting shop, she has been around the block pretty well. She’s seen the rough side of life in her upbringing (see her Wiki entry) and with previous work experience in a bookies, a computer games shop and wearing a Pizza Hut tabard, she knows the grittier kind of life experience.
She also has an eye for the bright lights – not of the Commons Chamber, but of the TV studios, and she’s quite happy to sup with the likes of Darren Grimes and Nigel Farage on GB News and around the oval table of the BBC’s politics show. But she will fight hard and dirty, knowing that on present boundaries it is uphill. However, even if she goes under – as I feel she will – she is not going to go gentle into any political dark night – quite the reverse in fact, and may be freed up to become an all-purpose 24/7 media talking head, may God help us.
Paul Howell, Sedgefield
Let us go north to 11 o’clock and Sedgefield’s Paul Howell. He is a man who is forever photographed wearing a grey suit, a grey tie and a vague grey persona. He has one of the shortest and least informative Wiki entry of any MP I have seen, it merely records that he had ‘been an accountant’ and derives income from a string of local houses he rents out. With a majority of 4,500 odd, he should be bankable, but he was helped in 2019 by the fact that Labour’s Phil Wilson seemed to be campaigning as much against his own party as the Tories. It is thus bye-bye to Mr Howell MP and a return to double entry bookkeeping for local shopkeepers.
Richard Holden, North West Durham
12 midday on the dial takes us to North West Durham’s Richard Holden. One feature of Mr Holden, besides holding the UK all-comers record for blocking constituents on social media, has been his unerring eye for a hand hold on the greasy pole of Tory politics. It takes a special kind of chutzpah as a CCHQ staffer to move seamlessly from being on Theresa May’s leadership bid team to doing the same job on Boris’s squad. Add to that being a special advisor and confidant of the hapless Gavin Williamson, the former Education Secretary and spider fancier, and you get the picture.
Holden’s appearances on regional TV have been characterised by trying to be loyal to whoever is the leader, whilst at the same time digging himself deeper into whatever hole he is in at the time. He seems to have had no life outside machine politics, but at 37, he knows that’s a fading asset so when he goes, as he will, expect a flurry of job applications to every think tank on Tufton Street before looking for a safer berth for – say – 2025 or 2026.
Jill Mortimer, Hartlepool
Down to 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the very strange Jill Mortimer in Hartlepool. It is one of Northeast regional politics’ worst kept secrets that when the Tories were faced with a by-election here they were faced with two female candidates. One was the media savvy, Mieka Smiles, a Councillor in Middlesbrough and the town’s deputy Mayor. In her career as a journalist – having written for the MailOnline, The Sun, The Mirror and as a house journalist for the Middlesbrough Gazette – was on the up, combining press skills with a knowledge of practical politics. The other was Jill Mortimer.
In their unerring logic, the Tories naturally chose Mrs Mortimer. She approached the by-election like a rabbit caught in full-beam oncoming headlights, an approach she continued with after her election, something not helped by the fact that one of her more famous by-election utterances when let off the leash was that she admitted “I don’t spend much time in the area” as a farmhouse hotelier and local councillor in Thirsk, North Yorkshire – more than 30 miles from Hartlepool. But then an (unnamed) grandmother grew up in Hartlepool. So that’s OK. No, another goner.
Jacob Young, Redcar
3 o’clock takes us to Jacob Young in Redcar. He is working-class Tory, in the truest sense, and believes in what his elders and/or betters tell him. But as they have had nearly two centuries of getting it wrong about most things that isn’t much of an attribute. The trouble is that Jacob has had no real hinterland in politics, merely spending a short time on Middlesbrough Council as a member of the miniscule Tory Group. As Redcar is slated as a shoo-in to return to Labour, all he’s left with is to hope that Ben Houchen might – in a few short months – weave a miracle out of the rusting iron work and slag heaps of a dead steelworks site.
So, as he’s kept his safety helmet, is it back to shop floor life in the chemical industry from whence he came? Probably. But, there is a grim irony here; for all the workers on the sites at Wilton, Billingham and Seal Sands have all, following Brexit (which he ardently supported) had to qualify in new UK handling, safety and process certification. Something intended to supplement the overarching, globally recognised REACH standards set down by the European Union. But plucky Jacob, I guess, was not among them, so it’s a crash course before he is let near any pipework and pressure tanks again.
Simon Clarke, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland
And now, at 5 0′ clock, the last Red Waller, the proto-uber northern Tory, Simon Clarke. Now here is where I put my neck out. I think he might walk. But he’s in the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury (not that many have noticed) so why, you may ask? Well, he is, someone with a genuine feel for political history. He knows that, in theory at least, the Chief Secretary is just a heartbeat away from the Chancellorship. And the Chancellor, so conventional history and wisdom goes, is the ‘natural’ choice for leader and – dare whisper it – 10 Downing Street. But to bed yourself in, you need the ‘bottom’ of a few years, and being made up only last year, that’s an asset he doesn’t have.
He’ll have looked up the history of Chief Secretaries who have gone under with the ship after a new Prime Minister gets it wrong. What he may have learned will make for grim reading. Who (in 1979) remembers Joel Barnett? And who, in 2015, remembers Liam Byrne save a few hardcore old Blairites still on the PLP green benches? The omens don’t look good. But then, a life out of politics and the asset of knowing very intimately the thinking of senior Treasury Civil Servants and of the Bank of England Board, is a pretty tradeable commodity in exchange for a well-paid non-executive directorship somewhere in the Square Mile or on Canary Wharf.
There is also another reason. Little noticed except by political ultra-obsessives, was the last local council by-election of 2021. In the Hutton Ward of Redcar and Cleveland, in the blue heartland of Simon’s constituency, a vacancy occurred on the local town council. So, on 23 December, a day before Christmas Eve, in a sleet storm and with most normal people’s mind on last minute shopping to ward off any Covid curbs afterwards, 1266 people in a ward so safe for the Tories that Labour, when it stands, only puts up a paper candidate (in fact, so long has this been the case that the first ever aspirant was probably a parchment candidate) turned out to cast their vote for a body responsible only for a few allotments and the town’s ‘best dressed shop window’ Christmas display.
Labour didn’t stand this time so it was a clear vote on political preference between two experienced and capable candidates. 924 of those 1266 voters plumped for the Lib Dem, with the Tory candidate, Clarke’s choice trailing along way behind with 342. The Biblical writing on this bit of the wall was very orange. I’d be with Simon on his choice after that one.