Some months ago I did a quick survey of Teesside and County Durham’s Tory MPs to determine their stance if a general election suddenly crashed in through their electoral roof. At that time I felt all (with one possible exception) would stay and fight. Of course at the time, days after the New Year, it was a different world. The Ukraine was yet another former ex-Soviet state at loggerheads with both its bigger neighbour and internally – but so then, was Belarus. The Jubilee was so far over the horizon it was invisible to all but the most ardent royalist. Partygate was steaming under the surface, but the Covid issue was still more sharply determined for most by terms of the need for continued social distancing affecting them and their families.
My betting was therefore based on the zeitgeist of late 2021. Although the details of Partyate were there, the sheer grossness of it was still to surface. Mind, what was there was dynamite. More immediately, Boris had been hooked by his whoppers – on Universal Credit, the Warm Homes Grant and ‘levelling up’. It was inevitable back then, I thought, that he would soon be gone, and his successor, whoever that was, would seek an early election mandate (and thus one based on present boundaries) before the excrement in the water breaks the surface.
But in those terms, I was wrong. The wind down of Covid restrictions and above all the outbreak of war in the Ukraine gave Boris time to prevaricate and hobbled any successful opposition. So too, for a limited time, did the Jubilee. But now six months on, there is no ambiguity. There will be a leadership ballot. This is being written on Monday morning and the first ballot is tonight.
How will the Red Wallers vote?
So the first consideration will be how will our Red Wallers vote on the simple proposition of backing Boris or possibly showing him the door?
Let’s canter round the ring again and in the same clockwise order. At the bottom of the dial at 6.00 pm is Matt Vickers in Stockton South. Matt, I feel will not back Boris. As said before, he knows that recent or planned housing developments (which naturally in a NIMBYish fashion, he always opposed) benefit him. He knows above all, that if he wins against the tide this time, the boundary changes that would click in under a new leader wishing to cement new policies (all of which need time) 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 so they can merely pile these new votes on top of their majorities in inner Teesside. Why back that all that on a demonstrably failed leader?
Eight o’clock on the dial brings us to Darlington and Peter Gibson. The same considerations apply. Boundary changes will be beneficial to a blue rosette wearer, with the long overdue move to reflect the whole borough as one constituency – including the affluent villages to the South of the town which for some ancient reason was always gifted to Sedgefield. So the instinct should be to take the same stance as Matt Vickers. Peter in his heart is not one to get down and dirty. But the 1922 polling booth is a secret affair. So far then 0-2 for Boris.
Ten o’clock brings us to the inimitable and seemingly ubiquitous Dehenna Davison in Bishop. Her views are anathema to me, but views she has and in abundance. She has never been seen as “one of us” by the various tribes of conservatism, and as I said in January she has an eye for the bright lights 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. Either way she has little to lose by backing Boris – except for the fact that she has as one of her besties the ever-forceful Carrie. I can’t make a call.
Again, at 11 o’clock is Sedgefield’s Paul Howell. As I said back in January he “is a man who is forever photographed wearing a grey suit, a grey tie and a vague grey persona.” He’s an accountant, and I have to invite the fury of members of the ACCA by saying I have yet to meet an accountant who is adventurous or wants to kick over the traces. Boris will get his backing.
!2 midday on the dial takes us to NW Durham’s Richard Holden. One feature of Mr Holden, beside 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. He will seek to eye up the field of potential contenders to see if there is one he can hitch his waggon to. If there is one, and one who reciprocates his sudden enthusiasm, expect a flamboyant burst of rebellion. If not, then omerta, and a surly vote for the incumbent.
Down to 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the very strange Jill Mortimer in Hartlepool. It is one of 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, she had 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. I guess the past proximity of that byelection and the trips made to the town by Boris will still influence her and she’ll plump for him over the unknown. But in her inner ear, she knows it doesn’t matter more than a hill of beans, and no matter who occupies number 10, she is still a dead duck in the waters of Hartlepool Marina.
3 o’clock takes to Jacob Young in Redcar. As said before, he is a man who, being a simple minded soul but infected by Tory Boy syndrome, will be fodder for Boris in this first vote. Along with some other Tory MPs, he was name checked in a superb vignette in the Mail on Sunday yesterday:
“Stanley and Carrie Johnson, above, are patrons of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, which last week spoke out against the cruel use of lumpfish in the salmon industry to eat lice off big fish. After being used as ‘cleaner fish’ for infested salmon, they are then ruthlessly disposed of. Which brings to mind the equivalent ‘cleaner fish’ of Westminster being sent out to defend Boris Johnson – the school of 2019-ers seemingly willing to say anything: Mark Jenkinson, Katherine Fletcher, Jacob Young and Joy Morrissey. When will they realise that they, too, are disposable?”
Finally completing the circle, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland’s MP’s Simon Clarke. He is the exception to all the others. He has personal skin in this game as a minister of cabinet rank as First Secretary to the Treasury. Any decision he makes has to be weighed up against that consideration. Above all, he will be privy to the inner thinking of Rishi Sunak – and whilst since January that has been a fading asset, it is still an important one. As with Matt Vickers who we started with, the boundary changes which are planned will carry prime red voters off on to the Redcar seat of Jacob Young (a loser in any fashion), but the suburban lawns of Marton, Nunthorpe and Guisborough might not be as loyal as once thought. No matter what he says in public, I feel a vote against Boris is maturing in his innermost depths.
So my prediction is 3-3 between Boris and a leadership contest and two where it is too close to make a call. It will all get more interesting tomorrow.