Conservatives are making inroads in the North - and are set to win more seats at the next election, senior Cabinet Minister William Hague has insisted.
Speaking to The Journal on the first day of the Conservative Party conference, Mr Hague highlighted the party’s success in winning Stockton South from Labour at the last election and said the party would be fighting to win seats in Newcastle and nearby constituencies next year.
Tories had a “strong message” to campaign on in the North because the region would benefit from plans to create three million apprenticeships by reducing the cap on benefits a single household can claim from £26,000 to £23,000, he said.
Plans to offer first-time-buyers under 40 up to 20% off the cost of a new home would also benefit many people in the North of England, Mr Hague said.
Mr Hague, a former Foreign Secretary and now Leader of the Commons, also insisted the Government was ready to hand significant powers to major cities and regions, but pledged there would be no new tier of government such as a new regional assembly.
Asked whether he was happy with the progress Conservatives were making in the North, he said: “At the last general election we made a major breakthrough in the North - if you take the North as being Yorkshire, the North East and North West. We went up at the last election from 19 MPs in the North to 42. That was a huge expansion, including in the North East of course, where we gained Stockton South.
“I hope we can add to that - there will be seats we will be targeting in the North including the North East.”
Asked how he explained the fact that cities like Newcastle don’t have a single Conservative councillor, he said: “I know you can say there aren’t Conservative councillors in Newcastle but then I can say I represent a large part of the North of England in North Yorkshire and there aren’t any Labour councillors in the whole of my constituency, which covers nearly 1,000 square miles.
“So you can’t generalise about the North.”
Mr Hague said the Conservative government had helped the economy grow which benefited every part of the country.
He said: “The North like the rest of the country varies in its politics and we will have hard working candidates everywhere including in Newcastle, and we will be out to gain seats at the next general election.
“And I think we have a good story to tell in the North because unemployment is falling in the North of England. Many of the people who will benefit from the apprenticeships we are announcing and the homes for first time buyers will be in the North of England. So when it comes to actually improving people’s lives, the Conservative party will have a strong message in the North.”
Mr Hague, who is chairing a Cabinet committee looking at how to change the way England is governed, said the Conservatives would pass on more powers to local authorities if they wanted them - and was keen to hear new ideas for how to devolve authority.
But he said there was no prospect of giving English regions the same level of autonomy as has been promised to Scotland.
He said: “We will not be creating new regional tiers of government. The one time that was put to people, in the North East in 2004, it was very heavily rejected by the people of the North East.
“We are not in favour of creating new layers of government and more bureaucracy. This is about making work what’s already there.”
He added: “We have introduced the city deals - we’ve given greater freedom to cities than any previous government, in recent decades in any case.
“And we are open to further ideas and discussion about that.
“I can’t raise the prospect of the same degree of autonomy as Scotland as a nation within the United Kingdom.
“But clearly this government is going in the direction of greater local autonomy.
“We will be discussing in my committee ... scope for going further. And we will be interested in any ideas.”
Mr Hague also highlighted plans to introduce “English votes for English laws” by barring Scottish MPs from voting on English issues at Westminster, although he said the Tories would not publish their detailed proposals before attempting to reach an agreement with the other parties.