Blue Wall MPs in talks to direct donor funds away from Tory HQ

Edward Malnick
·7-min read
Northern Tory MPs are expected to hold formal talks with Rishi Sunak over their frustrations next week - PA
Northern Tory MPs are expected to hold formal talks with Rishi Sunak over their frustrations next week - PA

The 50 northern MPs who called for a "clear road map" out of lockdown restrictions are setting up their own fighting fund to help retain Blue Wall seats facing a campaigning "onslaught" from Labour.

Amid growing frustration with "inaction" from Conservative Party Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ), the Northern Research Group has been in talks with businesses seeking to pour funds into defending the constituencies won from Labour last year.

Separately, some MPs from the 2019 intake are speaking directly to major donors about diverting donations directly to at-risk seats rather than channeling the funds through the Tories' Westminster offices.

The Blue Wall fund, run by a new NRG political committee, would further fracture the new Northern Research Group's relations with the Tory leadership, after more than 50 of its members warned Boris Johnson that Covid-19 could result in their constituencies being "left behind".

But in a sign of the seriousness with which ministers are taking the group's interventions, next week its members are expected to hold formal talks with Rishi Sunak, who has described himself as a "northern Chancellor" and said he shared their frustrations.

Sources in the group insist they are supportive of the Government but want to ensure it delivers on manifesto promises to "level up" the country, with major investment in the North and Midlands.

The group, led by Jake Berry, the former Northern Powerhouse minister, is expected to press the Chancellor to recommit to signature manifesto commitments on northern infrastructure, and to consider a dedicated Covid-19 recovery fund for the North.

The group's fundraising efforts come amid mounting fears among new Tory MPs about highly-targeted social media campaigns being carried out by Labour, attacking individual Conservatives for their party's response to Covid-19.  

Last week, Labour rocketed to a five-point lead over the Conservatives.

An audit by this newspaper found that in September, the party targeted 55 seats won by the Tories in December, using paid Facebook and Instagram advertisements to accuse each incumbent Conservative of voting to end the furlough scheme in their constituency - claiming that each had put thousands jobs at risk.

Last week, Facebook users in Greater Manchester were targeted with a video produced by a Labour-supporting group which claimed that the Prime Minister "betrayed you" over a funding deal to help the area to cope with new Covid-19 restrictions.

Northern Tory MPs have been attacked over the party's handling of lockdown restrictions in Greater Manchester
Northern Tory MPs have been attacked over the party's handling of lockdown restrictions in Greater Manchester

"He came to power by making big promises to Northern voters, but when Greater Manchester asked for help he failed to deliver," stated the video by One Rule For Them, a group set up in September by Adam McNicholas, a former Labour campaign director.

In the last fortnight, Labour has been paying for Facebook and Instagram advertisements stating that the Government has "lost control of the virus" and calling for a  "circuit break" lockdown.

The so-called Blue Wall derives its name from the seats in the Midlands, Yorkshire, north east Wales, and northern England that were won by the Conservatives last year having previously been considered Labour heartlands.

The Northern Research Group's fundraising efforts which will be overseen by a new political committee led by John Stevenson, who has been MP for Carlisle since 2010 and is considered one of the party's most effective campaigners.

It is expected to be unveiled at a meeting of the Northern Research Group on Monday.

Mr Stevenson said the NRG political committee will "raise the fighting funds necessary to take the fight to Labour, turning those red wall seats our Party won in the last election into a blue wall across the North.

"We’ve already raised a significant amount of campaign capital – our aspiration is to raise enough to support our members between now and the next election."

He added: "We cannot forget that we must deliver on our commitments made during [the 2019] election, to level-up the North and create greater opportunity.

"To do that, we must ensure that Conservative MPs have the tools and the resources they need to champion and promote this Government’s levelling-up agenda, investing in our communities."

In an echo of a system set up by Lord Ashcroft, the Tory peer, in 2010, MPs would apply for funding for particular projects, such as a leafleting drive or social media campaign.

Mr Stevenson and his committee will then provide advice on the bid before "match-making" the applicant with a donor who would provide funds directly to the MP or their local Conservative association.

Northern businesses have already pledged tens of thousands of pounds towards the fund.

MPs said the fund was intended to help fight back against Labour campaigns.

Members of the 2019 intake of Tories raised concerns about Labour attacks and insufficient support from CCHQ in a conference call with Amanda Milling, the Tory chairman, on Thursday evening.

A member of the 2019 intake holding their own discussions with party donors said: "Our own party is selling us down the river and we're not sure we're going to put up with this much longer.

"Some of us haven't had a penny of support from CCHQ. We are talking to Conservative donors about directing some of their support to our seats."

On September 9, Labour called a Commons vote on extending the furlough scheme, under which the Government had been subsidising up to 80 per cent of the salaries of workers affected by Covid-19.

While some 326 Conservatives opposed the motion, 55 were singled out for a Labour attack advertisement targeted at constituents in each of their seats.

All of them hold seats that Labour believe they can win at the next election.

Facebook and Instagram users logging in from Bishop Auckland were told that their MP, the 27-year-old rising star Dehenna Davison, had "just voted to end Furlough in Bishop Auckland, putting 5,400 jobs at risk".

Similar advertisements were targeted at members of the public in Redcar, who were told that their MP Jacob Young had put 4,700 jobs at risk, and at constituents of Matt Vickers in Stockton South.

Several of the adverts have targeted multiple Tory MPs
Several of the adverts have targeted multiple Tory MPs

In fact, the decision to begin winding down the furlough scheme had been taken by Mr Sunak months earlier, when he said that leaving it open forever would give people "false hope".

The Treasury planned to help employees back into work with a £1,000 retention bonus for firms taking back furloughed staff.

The One Rule for Them group, which was also behind a controversial video attacking Rishi Sunak, was founded by Mr McNicholas after he declared that Labour needed a "fifth column" aimed at winning over those who would consider voting for the party but failed to do so in 2019.

Another group, Labour Doorstep, has been distributing graphics to activists which attack individual Tory MPs for the party's refusal to extend the free schools meal scheme to cover future school holidays.

Labour have launched a social media offensive against new Tory MPs in northern seats
Labour have launched a social media offensive against new Tory MPs in northern seats

A poster aimed at the 2019-intake Tory MP in Derbyshire stated: "First they snatched milk. Now they steal meals. Robert Largan voted to let them do it."

By contrast, one Blue Wall Tory said, the Conservatives' campaigning machine "is very flat footed."

Tory MPs left exposed by the October vote on free school meals were eventually provided with a series of graphics designed to explain the Government's position, including the fact that it provides 1.4 million free school meals to children during term-time.

"We were nowhere on free school meals for days," one Conservative MP complained.

"That hurt us in exactly the kind of seat we should be pouring resources into."

A Tory spokesman said: “CCHQs role is to campaign and fundraise for national, local, PCC [police and crime commissioner] and mayoral elections and this continues as usual." The spokesman pointed out that the party had recently announced its own "Blue Wall Fund" which would "go towards helping the seats we gained in last year's election.”

A Tory source added: “It’s a little disingenuous to try to lay blame for things like the free school meals vote on CCHQ. They worked with the hand they were dealt, and MPs had been sent graphics for social media in advance of the vote.”