TORIES have hit back over claims they could lose the next general election because of electoral “permafrost” in the North-East.
Labour seized on the reported comments from an aide to Conservative leader David Cameron amid claims that a snap poll in the autumn or next Spring could spell a fourth successive defeat for the party because of its problems in attracting support in the North.
Hexham MP Peter Atkinson is the only Conservative MP in the North-East, while the party has no councillors in Newcastle and Gateshead – although it does have other councillors across the region, including in Sunderland.
Conservative MPs are also missing from other major cities like Leeds, leading to a party insider claiming that it could take another general election before the party wins because key Northern battlegrounds are solid Labour.
Mr Cameron has set up a Northern Board to reinvigorate the party with former leader William Hague as chairman – but some MPs have reportedly expressed concern he has insufficient time due to his role as shadow foreign secretary.
“We have to accept that at the moment the North is permafrost for the party. We don’t have to win seats in every Northern city to win an election but there is this permafrost which is difficult to overcome,” said the party insider.
Tyneside MP Nick Brown, also minister for the North-East, claimed the Conservatives were “neglecting” the region and failing to rebuild in cities like Newcastle and Durham.
The Labour MP hit out at Alan Duncan, the Tories’ shadow minister for Tyneside, saying: “He should have spent the Parliamentary recess working hard in the region like I have been doing. We just haven’t seen him up here at all.”
Mr Brown said the Conservatives currently had no chance of winning an election, adding Gordon Brown had the option of holding an autumn poll but stressed it was up to the Prime Minister to decide whether to exercise that possibility.
But Mr Duncan said: “I don’t accept that we face permafrost in the North. Just look at this year’s local election results when we made significant progress across the country and Labour had its worst results for 40 years.
“I have done more in Tyneside over the past year than many Labour MPs have done for over 10 years. The fact that Labour have copied us in appointing a Minister for the North-East and Nick is criticising me personally just shows what an impact we have had.”
Lee Martin, who leads the Tory group on Sunderland Council, said the party was going to have to do better, despite last month’s appointment of Fareham MP Mark Hoban and shadow minister for Wearside.
He admitted there was a problem in “pockets” such as Newcastle where campaigners were needed on the ground, which often meant having councillors.
Mr Martin said the other key issue was achieving credibility, but stressed this had been done in Tynemouth and Sunderland where party councillors have been elected.
Alan who? Conservatives have work to do on their profile
THE Journal took to the streets of Newcastle yesterday to see how many knew the identity of their Tory representative on Tyneside, months after Alan Duncan was appointed to his Shadow role.
The bad news for the Conservatives was - nobody did. The worse news was that fewer were even aware of the existence of a Shadow Minister for Wearside, let alone what his name is. It is, for those who don’t know, Fareham MP, Mark Hoban.
Gail Peters, 50, marketing consultant, of Gosforth, Newcastle, said: “I didn’t know there was a shadow minister for Wearside but I have heard of one for Tyneside, I don’t know his name though and haven’t seen him. In my opinion there are too many levels of bureaucracy anyway.”
Kevin Anderson, 47, a banker, of Tynemouth, North Tyneside, said: “I didn’t know there were any shadow ministers, they don’t seem to be making much of an impact.”
Peter McKendrick, a retired Chartered Surveyor, from Slaley, Hexham, said: “From my experience of always living in the North-East the Tories have a good a record as any of introducing ideas that have led to regeneration and job creation. I knew they had a shadow minister for Tyneside, I can’t remember his name, but I didn’t know there was one for Wearside.”
Patrick Sloan, 27, a photographer of Ryton, Gateshead, said: “The Conservatives are slowly getting support but there is still a long process to go especially in the North-East because of the North South divide.”
Susan Smith, 45, a cleaner, of Fenham, Newcastle, said: “I don’t know who these people are, I’ve never even heard of them.”