Researching the Northern Research Group (part 1)

The Tory party of late seems to have descended into multiple competing and overlapping factions, including the Common Sense Group, the Covid Recovery Group, and the Northern Research Group. Here, Alex Toal takes a look at the NRG, asking – who are they, what do they believe in, and why have they come together? This is what he found.

On 27 October the group of Conservative Party MPs sent a private letter to the prime minister. Since then, various media outlets – including Yorkshire Bylines – have wanted to know more. But finding this information is tricky, because, like the ERG before it, the NRG has no official outlets such as a website or social media accounts, and their profile is even less formalised.

Who is in the NRG?

We know of 41 official members of the NRG, while at least 14 more remain anonymous, according to the Guardian. A Spectator article quotes their chair Jake Berry as claiming that there are 80 in the parliamentary grouping. This is a far from homogenous group, and many within it hold very different views on subjects. However, if we take a look at the 41 confirmed members, several trends become evident.

The group’s members are overwhelmingly from the North, and several, such as Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan, can even boast of having been born in their constituency. The majority also have careers outside of politics, such as Dewsbury MP Mark Eastwood, who worked for a company which supplied medical furniture, and Keighley MP Robbie Moore, who set up his own plastic recycling business.

They have also fought tougher campaigns than many other Conservative MPs. The group’s members occupy the four most marginal Conservative seats in the North, most notably James Daly’s 101-vote margin in Bury North, and 24.4 percent of them have a majority of less than 5 percent (compared with an average 18.4 percent for all Conservative MPs).

Interestingly, four of its members, including Yorkshire-based Jason McCartney (Colne Valley), had previously been voted out of their constituencies, before regaining them in 2017 or 2019. Only two of their number have never had to win their seat from another party. This is important. Many of these MPs are from bellwether seats that now comprise the Blue Wall in the north. These seats are vulnerable. They also tend to be from more industrial, working class areas with high numbers of manufacturing jobs. Dewsbury, for example, has 25 percent of its population employed in manufacturing, compared with 8.1 percent nationally.

As a cohort they are overwhelmingly white and male, with only one BAME member (Imran Ahmad Khan, MP for Wakefield) and three women (Esther McVey, Mary Robinson, and Sara Britcliffe) amongst their number. In terms of their educational backgrounds, only 26 percent of the group’s members attended independent schools (compared with 54 percent of Conservative MPs as a whole), and only 15 percent went to Oxbridge (versus 38 percent of the overall party). Unsurprisingly, these figures are also lower than the national average for all MPs.

The group can be categorised into roughly four subgroups. These are:

The 2019 intake (23 members) – these are MPs who were elected in 2019, more often than not on relatively slim majorities in traditionally Labour seats. This group makes up more than half of the total 41 new MPs elected in previously Labour seats in the Midlands and the North. Yorkshire MPs in this subgroup consist of:

  • Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley)
  • Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield)
  • Jason McCartney (Colne Valley)
  • Mark Eastwood (Dewsbury)
  • Nick Fletcher (Don Valley)
  • Robbie Moore (Keighley)

Former Johnsonites (seven members) – these are figures who backed the prime minister in his leadership bid, and even served in his cabinet, before departing for various reasons. Many, like Esther McVey and Jake Berry, were dismissed in Johnson’s post-Brexit reshuffle in February 2020. Others, such as Chris Green and Simon Clarke, resigned over the summer – the former citing disapproval of the government’s coronavirus strategy, the latter allegedly for personal reasons. This number includes Yorkshire MP Andrew Percy, who served as Northern Powerhouse minister under Theresa May.

Former ministers (five members) – these are MPs who held junior or middling roles under Cameron and May, but who had either left frontbench politics by the time of Johnson’s accession (such as Haltemprice and Howden MP David Davis) or were sacked by Johnson after he came to power (including Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker, and Scarborough and Whitby MP Robert Goodwill). None of these figures originally endorsed Johnson’s leadership bid.

Veteran backbenchers (six members) – this small grouping consists of MPs elected between 2005 and 2015, who have either been overlooked for front bench roles, or who have openly expressed a lack of interest in ministerial positions. They are often to be found in rebellious groups like the new Common Sense Group (which includes Shipley MP Philip Davies) or the Covid Recovery Group. 

More from Yorkshire Bylines:

There are some overlaps, but this division helps us understand the cohort to some extent. Many MPs in the last two groups were also among the more rebellious in the 2019 parliament, and willing to break the party whip. This includes David Davis (2nd most rebellious) and Jason McCartney (9th most rebellious). However, it’s worth noting that, as with any parliamentary ‘rebels’, these rebellions are still on only a minority of bills: even Davis only defied the whip on 11.9 percent of votes.

What do their members believe in?

This is a much harder question than the first, mostly because of the size of the group. It’s easier to determine the beliefs of David Davis, who has been in parliament for 23 years, than one of the new 2019 MPs. A few things do, however, unite the group.

Broadly speaking, they are more culturally conservative than other members of the party, with eight of their members in the 59-strong anti-woke ‘Common Sense Group’. Among these is Ben Bradley, who only last month accused the National Trust of “anti-British rhetoric” and claimed that free school meal vouchers were a “£20 cash direct to a crack den and brothel”. Likewise, Craig Whittaker got into trouble for claiming that BAME communities were “not taking the pandemic seriously”. Looking back to the 2013 legalisation of gay marriage, eight of the 16 members of the group who were in parliament at the time voted against it. That said, these individuals are far from characterising the entire caucus, and I doubt that the several openly gay MPs amongst the NRG’s ranks would want to be associated with such homophobia.

Some 13 of the 20 members who were MPs in 2016 campaigned for Brexit, and those who supported Remain have followed the party line on Brexit since then. Of the MPs who were in parliament during the meaningful votes of 2019, none of them supported the Cooper amendment, which sought to rule out no deal. Only one of their number, John Stevenson, did not vote for the internal market bill, and even he merely abstained.

The largest rebellion of the group so far has been on the issue of a second lockdown, where seven of their members voted against it, and two abstained. Most of these, however, were among the former ministers and veteran backbenchers.

On northern issues, there is broad consensus on the need for devolution and levelling up, though less agreement when it comes to specific policy areas, such as the northern leg of HS2. Members such as Jake Berry and Andrew Percy support HS2, but the high-speed railway is opposed by members like James Grundy, Phillip Davies, Alexander Stafford and William Wragg.

Many, such as Ben Bradley, Phillip Davies and Julian Sturdy, whose constituencies have not yet reached devolution settlements, have agitated for them for some time. And the presence of three former Northern Powerhouse ministers in the group – Jake Berry, Andrew Percy and Simon Clarke – speaks to a broader endorsement of Osborne-era levelling-up plans.

The group’s clear focus on the North was seen on Wednesday, as a mix of the 2019 intake and former Johnsonites spoke at a Westminster Hall debate on the northern recovery, called by Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis. Berry followed Jarvis’ speech, praising the mayor, whilst pointing out the lack of devolution in England until the Conservatives came to power in 2010. Berry spoke about the economic and cultural importance of football clubs to the North, attempting to draw dividing lines with his southern colleagues by suggesting they prefer opera and ballet, for which he immediately got into trouble with the Northern Ballet.

Most interestingly, however, he described the NRG as a “praetorian guard for the Prime Minister”, evoking the tight-knit bodyguards of the Roman emperor. This is, perhaps, one of the clearest indications so far of the group’s intentions, and something that needs further exploration. And with all these different factions, what does it mean for the future of the party?

Part two of this series will explore the third question – why was the NRG set up?

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