‘He’s betrayed us,’ they told me bitterly. ‘He’s surrendered to all those liberal, soft, muesli-loving, woke, knee-taking b******s in the South!’
Another Red Wall MP agreed. ‘Rishi’s cut us loose. He’s going to circle the wagons round the traditional seats and see how many he can save. Well, we’re not going to lay down and take it. There’s going to be a reaction.’
What that reaction will be is the subject of intense discussion this weekend. For some Red Wallers it’s time to again start thinking the unthinkable.
‘There’s cold fury at the PM,’ one claimed. ‘I’m not personally there yet, but a large number of colleagues are saying, ‘We’ve nothing to lose, we may as well roll the dice one more time.’ I don’t think Rishi is going to lead us into the next election.’
Rishi Sunak wanted last week’s Cabinet reshuffle to be a political ‘game-changer’. And for one Red Wall Tory MP it certainly was. ‘He’s betrayed us,’ they told me bitterly.
Another Red Wall MP agreed. ‘Rishi’s cut us loose. He’s going to circle the wagons round the traditional seats and see how many he can save. Well, we’re not going to lay down and take it. There’s going to be a reaction’
Rather than the nuclear option of yet another leadership contest, others advocate some sort of sustained parliamentary guerrilla warfare.
‘It’s basically every man and woman for themselves,’ one explained to me. ‘We’re going to be pushing our own agenda from now on.’
However this dramatic statement of Red Wall UDI manifests itself, only time will tell. But one thing is certain. The great political realignment seemingly presaged by Boris Johnson’s 2019 general election victory is dead.
‘We had a golden opportunity to reshape British politics,’ one Minister told me, ‘but we’ve completely blown it. Former Labour voters were reaching out to us in their droves. But now we’ve turned our backs on them.’
The brief life, and untimely death, of Red Wall Tory Britain is the product of a number of factors.
When Covid struck, I remember a Cabinet Minister predicting: ‘That’s it for Boris and his Red Wall strategy. There’s now no way we’ll get the necessary investment in place in time for the next election.’
So it proved. Last week, the National Audit Office published a report into the Government’s Levelling Up, Towns Fund and UK Shared Prosperity Fund programmes. It found that since 2020, £10.6 billion of new investment had been announced. Of that, £9.5 billion had been allocated by central government. But only £2 billion had been handed to the various local development agencies.
And just £0.9 billion of that has actually been spent on projects on the ground.
The NAO published a similar report into the Government’s pledge to build ’40 new hospitals’. It revealed the first hospital, the Dyson Cancer Centre in Bath, will not open till the end of the year. The second hospital, the Shotley Bridge Hospital in County Durham, won’t be open until late 2025. The NAO concluded there is ‘inherent uncertainty’ about whether 30 of the 38 remaining hospitals were either ‘affordable or achievable’.
Another factor driving the Tory Red Wall implosion is the decline and fall of the standard bearer of that triumphant 2019 strategy, Boris Johnson.
Over the past couple of weeks, Johnson’s allies have been highlighting what they believe was a calculating and co-ordinated plot to assassinate their champion, and destroy his political project.
Another factor driving the Tory Red Wall implosion is the decline and fall of the standard bearer of that triumphant 2019 strategy, Boris Johnson
Others argue he was the architect of his own downfall, and that his removal became both necessary and inevitable after he was caught flouting the lockdown regulations millions of Red Wall voters had been diligently observing.
But the reasons for his demise are irrelevant. Whatever his faults, Johnson was able to reach over the Red Wall in a way neither of his successors – nor any readily identifiable replacements – have been able to match.
When Sunak became PM, one Red Waller told me they were optimistic. ‘He’s a Yorkshire MP, he understands the area, and he’s very popular in the constituency. He gets us,’ they said. Yet somewhere in the transition from the Yorkshire Dales to Downing Street, the MP for Richmond has morphed into the Rt Hon Member for Mars South. ‘It’s like he’s from another planet,’ one Tory grandee opined. ‘Artificial Intelligence conferences. A British Baccalaureate. Bans on smoking. How’s any of this supposed to cut through to my working-class voters?’
Another fundamental failure has been the Tories’ inability to understand – never mind leverage – the broader cultural and political undercurrents of their bold Red Wall incursion.
One reason that so many Labour supporters finally cast aside voting habits ingrained over generations was because they genuinely felt Boris Johnson and his party represented a challenge to the political status quo. What they definitely weren’t voting for was the spectacle of the newly ennobled Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton striding confidently along the main corridor of Downing Street to a chorus of ‘Daddy’s back!’ from his cheerleaders.
No10 insiders insist Cameron’s appointment as Foreign Secretary represented a mature response to the increasingly chaotic and dangerous picture on the international stage. Which may be true. But to Red Wall MPs, the appointment represented a slap in the face. Followed by a knee to the groin.
‘Ditching Suella [Braverman] was bad enough. My voters were right behind her,’ one raged. ‘But bringing back Cameron? That was just an insult. It’s just sticking a finger up to my people. And then they basically say, ‘Yeah sorry. But here, you can have Esther McVey as your consolation prize.’
In fairness, some Red Wallers recognise Sunak had little choice over ridding himself of his increasingly troublesome Home Secretary. ‘To be honest, she brought it on herself,’ one told me.
But in dispensing with Braverman – and receiving a vitriolic resignation letter condemning his failures to deliver on the Rwanda strategy – Sunak has highlighted what is probably the biggest single reason for the collapse of the Tories’ Red Wall support.
In response to Braverman’s letter, and the subsequent Supreme Court judgment ruling the Rwanda policy illegal, Sunak has gone on the offensive. ‘I will not allow foreign courts to block these flights,’ he said boldly, in reference to the European Court of Human Rights legislation he believes underpinned the ruling. According to senior No10 sources, this is not political grandstanding. They claim to have proof that the mere existence of the Rwanda plan is having some deterrent effect on small-boat numbers, and point to the fact that over the past year these have fallen by a third in the UK, while migrant numbers are rising across the rest of Europe.
One source said: ‘Every time Sir Keir Starmer says that, as PM, he would scrap the Rwanda scheme, he undermines its power. It leaves more potential migrants thinking ‘OK, let’s chance it.’
But people in Red Wall constituencies don’t put themselves in the minds of those contemplating the risky journey across the Channel. Instead, they are more likely to think back to what they were told by Rishi Sunak and his Tory colleagues back in 2016.
‘Vote for Brexit and you’ll take back control’ was the promise ahead of the referendum. It was repeated by Johnson in 2019 when he pledged that a vote for him meant finally getting Brexit done.
And yet here we are again. With Sunak admitting that foreign courts are still able to block the will of the British people. And desperately appealing for one more chance to deliver on the promises made to Red Wall voters.
He won’t get it. Because to their eyes, the Tories have had enough chances. The promise to deliver levelling up. The promise to shatter the old political consenus. The promise to stop the boats. The promise that people would be handed back control of their lives and communities.
‘Rishi’s abandoned us,’ one Red Wall MP claimed to me. He has. And in response, the voters of Red Wall Britain are now preparing to abandon him.