When George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement in the Commons next week, listen out for him pointedly noting that he is the first chancellor for over 35 years to represent a constituency in the north of England.
Get ready too for another outing of the latest phrase in the government’s lexicon of jargon: “northern powerhouse”. We’ve been hearing it since June; we’re going to hear an awful lot more of it between now and polling day.
But as various goodies are dangled in front of voters from the Mersey to the Tyne, remember there’s nothing new in the Conservatives trying to deal with its self-confessed “northern problem”.
Every Tory leader – from Heseltine to Thatcher, Hague and now Osborne – has tried to win over the north.
William Hague was voted Tory leader in 1997 in part due to his Yorkshire credentials being perceived as an asset (an association he did little to dispel). Margaret Thatcher tramped around northern industrial wastegrounds during the 1987 election and spoke repeatedly of “wanting to do something about our inner cities”. Michael Heseltine was sent to sort out Liverpool after the Toxteth riots of 1981.
The “problem” has been around for at least 30 years. Yet it is no longer so big a problem that it demands a solution – at least, not one that needs to be found in the next six months.
It would go against every instinct of the party’s patriotic wing, and could never be endorsed in public, but it would be possible for the Tories to win the election without bothering to try and win a single extra seat in the north of England.
It would involve minimising losses to Labour and Ukip at the same time as taking a hefty slice out of the Liberal Democrats. But it’s achievable. Here’s how:
Of the 40 seats it will, on paper, be easiest for the Tories to gain at the election in May 2015, only 10 are in the north of England.
Four are in the north-west: Bolton West, Wirral South, Blackpool South and Chorley. The other six are spread across the Yorkshire and Humber region: Great Grimsby, Morley & Outwood (Ed Balls’ seat), Halifax, Wakefield, Middlesbrough South & Cleveland East and Scunthorpe.
That’s not many. Just a quarter, in fact, of the seats that ought to turn Tory on a uniform swing of around 3 per cent.
Crucially, the party can secure a majority at the election if it fails to win a single one of these seats – just as long as it picks up at least half of the others on the top 40 list.
The Tories could abandon the north and still win the election.
There are nine targets alone in south-west England: Southampton Itchen, Dorset Mid & Poole North, Wells, St Austell & Newquay, Plymouth Moor View, St Ives, Somerton & Frome, Southampton Test and Chippenham.
A further 12 could be picked up in the Midlands: Solihull, Derby North, Dudley North, Telford, Walsall North, Birmingham Edgbaston, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Walsall South, Nottingham South, Gedling, Derbyshire North East and Wolverhampton North East.
Just those two regions would give the party a total of 21 gains, which, when added to the 305 they won last time (not including the Speaker and Douglas Carswell in Clacton), would give the Tories 326 (which assumes they win back Rochester): one more than the number needed for an absolute majority.
Now the chance of the Tories holding every seat they won in 2010 is slim going on impossible (they trail in nearly 40 Labour-Tory marginals). But if losses to Ukip and Labour are kept to single figures, it begins to seem more feasible. And just last week a poll suggested the Tories were one point ahead in the ultra-marginal seat of Stockton South, where they have a majority of just 332.
If a similar trend repeats itself in northern seats like Lancaster & Fleetwood (a Tory majority of 333), Carlisle (853) and Morecambe & Lunesdale (866), the electoral arithmetic moves even further in the Conservatives’ favour.
While abandoning the north may be a step too far, the Tories can be very successful in May without solving their perennial northern problem.
What of Labour – could they do the same in reverse, and win the election without makings gains in the south of England?
The short answer is no. The party is starting from a lower base than the Tories: it won 258 constituencies in 2010, and hence needs to add 68 to that total to win an absolute majority in the Commons.
You don’t have to look very far down Labour’s list of targets to find a seat in southern England. Number two is Thurrock in Essex (a Tory majority of 92) and number three is Hendon in north London (106). Carry on down the list and you’ll find 11 seats in London alone – most of which the party has a very good chance of taking if it can repeat the success it enjoyed in the capital in May’s local elections.
Next year England could become even more divided, between a Labour north and Conservative south.
But like the Tories, Labour has a sizable portion of targets in the Midlands. If it can score a decent hit rate here, and do similarly well in London, the pressure to gain Thurrock and other southern seats such as Waveney (a Tory majority of 769), Plymouth Sutton & Devonport (1,149) and Brighton Kemptown (1,328) will not be so great.
A poor Labour performance in the south wouldn’t necessarily stop the party ending up the largest in a hung parliament. But it would rule out any chance of forming a majority. Add in the likelihood of losses to the SNP in Scotland, and a Labour victory feels even more remote.
It is plausible that next year England becomes even more divided between a Labour north and Conservative south, with both parties making gains at the other’s expense, but only in one half of the nation.
Yet such an outcome could also put the Tories within touching distance of a majority. It’s one that would please the party’s pragmatists more than its idealists, but at the end of the day they’d still be in power – and quite possibly no longer in a coalition.