Christian Wakeford: The 'Red Wall' Tory MP with concerns about his own party
Boris Johnson is facing a major backlash in the wake of his decision to rip up "game changer" plans to transform transport in northern cities and instead scaled back plans for rail investment in the region.
The PM has been accused of "shortchanging" the North after the government announced the eastern leg of HS2 was being scrapped while the planned Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) was being curtailed.
And nowhere is this frustration more keenly felt than among the new intake of northern MPs in his own party, some of whom have expressed growing frustration about the direction of the party.
One such Conservative MP is Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South, who was elected in 2019 as one of the so-called ‘Red Wall Tories’ with a wafer-thin majority of 402 votes - one of the narrowest in the country.
In 2019, Johnson promised the line between Leeds and Manchester would be "colossal”, making multi-billion pound pledges to voters in the Midlands and the North in the election manifesto to 'level up' on investment and public infrastructure.
Tory MP hits out at Boris Johnson’s government and toxic politics – ‘We’re failing young people’
The image that sums up how bad the election was for Labour - and how incredible for the Tories
Revealed: 20 train routes which will now be slower than under HS2 plans
Speaking to Yahoo News UK before the announcement was confirmed on Thursday morning, Wakeford said: "I’m particularly concerned about Northern Powerhouse [Rail].
“Trying to get an electrified route between Manchester and Leeds is incredibly important."
Wakeford added that, whether it was called 'levelling up' or 'building back better', spending money on the North was about investment.
"If you want to call it 'levelling up', if you want call it 'building back better'- it's just economic development," he said .
"If all of a sudden you're somewhere on that route and you can travel into a city or even just further down the line quickly and cheaply that opens up so many so many opportunities in terms of jobs health education.
"To try to abandon that - it's not good."
And Wakeford is not the only Tory MP expressing concerns with their own leader.
Robbie Moore, Conservative MP for the West Yorkshire constituency of Keighley, accused the government of "shortchanging" northern voters in the House of Commons on Thursday.
"I'm deeply disappointed by this announcement," he told transport secretary Grant Shapps. "The Bradford district has been, in my view, completely shortchanged.
"We are one of the most socially deprived parts of the UK and must get better transport connectivity.
"And I still want to see Northern Powerhouse Rail delivered, with a main stop in Bradford so we can unlock our economic opportunities."
Other Conservatives expressed their concern in response to the announcement - including Tory MP for Thirsk and Malton in North Yorkshire, Kevin Hollinrake.
“A new station would have given [Bradford] a Kings Cross-style regeneration opportunity," he said.
"The economic price will be paid for generations”.
And Sir Edward Leigh, Tory MP for Gainsborough in the East Midlands, said: “HS2 was always a white elephant," he said.
"Now... it’s a white elephant missing a leg. Where’s that promise?”
Earlier this week, a variety of Northern newspapers united over the issue to tell the government: "deliver what you promised".
And for Wakeford, concerns about the direction of the party are not limited to infrastructure.
The 37-year-old, who grew up in poverty, has been something of a thorn on the prime minister's side in recent months.
He has regularly criticised the government's policies for those on low incomes - calling for the keeping of the Universal Credit uplift, praising Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford's free school meals campaign, and saying he'd work with him to help vulnerable kids.
“I think we made big strides in the last year, I think it’s a shame as to what it took for us to get there," he said.
The government was forced into a U-turn earlier this year by Rashford, over plans to cut free school meals over school holidays.
The footballer brought attention to the scale of child poverty in the country, sparking a national conversation on the issue which forced debates in parliament.
At the Conservative party conference in October, Wakeford said the government were "failing young people, and said government departments were "crap" at working with each other.
“I don’t care who I work with as long as I get where I want to [regarding child poverty],” he said at an event on child poverty.
“If that means working with Andy Burnham, fine… if that means working with Marcus Rashford, fine.”
On the issue of 'Tory sleaze' rocking his party, Wakeford is in an interesting position among the new 2019 intake of MPs - given many of those involved have been in their roles for long periods of time.
"I think we’ll get back to expenses scandal and say, ‘well, it was within the rules, so all that’s fine’ - but maybe the rules need changing," he said.
"So I’m not necessarily comfortable with colleagues - from whichever side - making 1000s and 1000s, when actually, we’re here to represent our constituents."
Adding: "But I think in particular, the ones that say: 'My constituents know, and they keep on voting me back' - maybe it’s that they don’t actually have an alternative?"
Wakeford expressed his frustration with the lobbying and second jobs scandals dominating the headlines at the moment, and the impact it has had on British politics.
“I think similar to the Owen Paterson case, it didn’t just devalue [Cox] or the party, it devalued all of us. It made all of us guilty," he said.
His concerns are not unfounded - with a growing number of polls placing Labour ahead of the Conservatives.
A recent YouGov poll found that 54% of people disapproved of how the government is conducting itself - with just 24% approving, the lowest since 2019.
In wake of the Tory sleaze saga, he said "to some extent" there needs to be a greater understanding in the party of the new demographic of former Labour voters that are choosing the Conservatives for the first time.
Adding: "Whichever colleague it is who’s been reported in the press on a daily basis, I’ve got my constituent saying: ‘Are you comfortable with this?’" he said.
"It’s not for me to be comfortable with it or not.
"As it turns out, it’s not something I would do, that’s a conversation for them - I don’t think it’s right.”
Watch: PM accepts Paterson broke ministerial code