“Red wall” Tories have warned Boris Johnson he must start delivering on his “levelling-up” agenda after he unexpectedly pulled out of a conference of northern Conservatives to visit Ukraine.
The move, just days before a crucial by-election in Wakefield which the Tories are widely expected to lose, was described as “disappointing” by MPs attending the event in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.
Allies of the Prime Minister dismissed claims he had chosen to travel to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv because he feared the reception he might receive as “conspiracy bollocks”.
However, Jake Berry, leader of the Northern Research Group (NRG) of MPs, said it underlined the importance of giving the region greater control so it was not just reliant on politicians in Whitehall.
He said that unless people in the north were able to see the benefits of levelling up, the Conservatives would struggle at the next general election.
“The Prime Minister’s movement is a matter for Downing Street,” he told Channel 4 News.
“Clearly, people were disappointed. We had 30-plus colleagues here and 400 members.
“What we have set out here today is hugely positive ideas from the north for the north which are designed to appeal to those voters in Wakefield and across the north of England.
“It is about fuelling that debate about how here in the north of England we can take back control of our destiny, not be reliant on a Prime Minister in Whitehall or Kyiv or wherever he may be at an individual moment to change our lives.
“Whoever the prime minister is, whatever is in the Conservative Party manifesto, unless people feel good about what Conservatives are achieving in the north, it is going to be a very difficult election. I wouldn’t run away from that.”
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, who was also at the NRG event, said Mr Johnson’s decision not to attend was a “missed opportunity”.
“If he doesn’t think he’s going to get a warm welcome in Doncaster, then there’s a real problem for the Government,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme
“If he’s not prepared to turn up, then he is going to have to do a lot more on delivery and on making sure this remains the priority it deserves to be in order to be able to close that north-south divide.
“I think the Prime Minister – if he retreats from his traditional approach of wanting to engage in and talk to the public – is in real tricky, tricky waters.”
The controversy blew up as the Conservatives are widely expected to lose the Wakefield by-election – one of the “red wall” seats they took from Labour in Mr Johnson’s 2019 general election landslide.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace dismissed claims that that was why he had chosen to stay away, saying there was “a lot of rubbish being spouted” about the visit.
He said such visits had to be organised in “total secrecy” and that it was important for Mr Johnson to show support for an ally that was at war.
“Helping Ukraine win and trying to help at home are linked. Part of the inflation we see comes from gas and food prices which are partly driven upwards because of this conflict,” he tweeted.
“Amazing how an important trip can generate so much conspiracy bollocks.”
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