Just as North Korea insists on calling itself democratic and MPs insist on calling themselves honourable, with the latest faction of Tory would-be rebels – the Northern Research Group – there may be a clue to be found in the name.
Naturally, it has been as shocking as it has been disappointing, over the last four and a half years, to discover that large numbers of the Tory MPs who make up the “European Research Group” might not have always been in it solely for the research, a journey of discovery that peaked when the now foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, confessed to having only recently learnt where France was.
Now, we have the Northern Research Group and it is off to a familiarly troubled start. It’s unfortunate for Boris Johnson that it’s been set up by Jake Berry, the MP for Rossendale and Darwen in Lancashire, because Berry was until very recently, one of his longest-serving, most loyal acolyte-cum-enforcers.
But it’s no less unfortunate for Berry himself. He now says that Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is threatening the prime minister’s promise, made at the general election, to “level up” the country and that his new de facto trade union of northern Tory MPs will make sure the promise is kept.
To which we can only say, “Oh please. Come on, mate.” Are you absolutely sure you need to start your own research group to find out that the current occupant of 10 Downing Street might be slightly less than good for his word?
It is not for us to speculate on the various epistemological currents that may have led Berry to this point: spending a political lifetime doing Johnson’s bidding only to now discover that it’s possible he’s about to not do something he said he’d do; that he might be standing ready to break a promise.
But it is perhaps for us to point out that the “levelling up” agenda was well known to be complete drivel long before anything untoward might have occurred between a bat and a pangolin round the back of a wet market in Wuhan.
On the off chance some of this has been forgotten, the “levelling up” agenda, as sold to the nation almost a full year ago, involved the creation of “20,000 new police officers”, most of which were not new, and in any event, would not be sufficient to replace the more than 20,000 that have been cut since the Conservatives came to power 10 years ago.
There was the pledge to build “40 new hospitals”, which every fact-checking service (apart from the Conservative Party itself pretending to be one) has concluded is in fact six.
(There was, also, of course, the pledge to get Brexit done, through the medium of the “oven-ready deal”, which turned out to be actively rancid, and so has ended with the prime minister having to introduce new legislation that breaks international law, as the only way he can think of extricating it from the oven at this impossibly late stage.)
The instant reaction to Johnson’s extraordinary win in December, in which huge numbers of extraordinarily safe Labour seats were convinced to vote Conservative for the first time in generations, was that it marked a serious shift in the way the Tories do politics. In other words, if they couldn’t govern in the interests of working-class northern voters, they would lose them as quickly as they gained them.
So it doesn’t bode well that less than a year has passed and one of the prime minister’s closest political friends has set up a faction against him. But it could hardly be less surprising.
It will, in any event, be curious to watch exactly how Berry and co go about forcing the prime minister to keep his promises, when they must surely have known they were empty to begin with.