‘Chicken run’: will red wall Tories defect to Labour?

Conservative backbenchers frustrated over negative headlines and ‘levelling up’ promises

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson’s government is reportedly on “red alert” over fears that northern Conservative MPs may defect to Labour ahead of the next general election.

Party whips are worried that some so-called red wall backbenchers could attempt a “chicken run” to a safe Labour seat, or switch sides in the same seat, according to The Mail on Sunday. A recent Deltapoll survey for the newspaper of more than 1,500 UK adults suggested that the Conservative Party faces a polling crash in the 57 seats gained by the Tories in the last general election.

And analysis of parliamentary voting records reportedly reveals “a concerted pushback by a small core of Tory MPs against No. 10”, with 15 Tory MPs representing “former Labour strongholds or marginals” voting against their own party on five or more occasions.

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Red Wall troubles

Mutinous Tories “insist there have been no discussions” about crossing the floor, said The Mail on Sunday. But Johnson is facing growing pressure from backbenchers as frustration mounts following weeks of negative headlines and a lack of movement on promises to “level up” the UK’s left-behind regions.

In an article for The Times, red wall rising star Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor for Tees Valley, warned the prime minister that MPs needed tangible evidence of progress on the government’s promises of “investment, jobs and progress” in left-behind northern constituencies.

“Voters are also realists – they know that levelling up is not something that will be delivered in just a year or two, it will be a decades long project,” Houchen wrote.

“But they do need to see progress, and this means steel going up to deliver new factories, spades in the ground for new energy infrastructure, and cranes in action as new bridges are built out over waters.”

Other red wall MPs have expressed similar frustration with “what some of them described as Downing Street’s poor communication and insensitivity to issues that disproportionately affect voters in poor parts of northern England”, said Business Insider.

Many voted against the government’s Health and Care Bill over fears that some people might be forced to sell their homes to pay for care. An unnamed Tory MP representing a seat in northwest England told the site that “if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. It doesn’t sound fair and it isn’t fair. A lot of homes in the North are worth less than £100,000.“

Another Tory MP pointed to the botched presentation of the Integrated Rail Plan, which axed key stretches of the HS2 rail line in northeast England. The politician said there had been widespread “anger over how the rail announcements were dealt with”.

“Underneath it all, it was a really good news story which turned into anything but,” the MP added.

The recent poll for The Mail on Sunday suggests that along with the growing discontent in his party, Johnson is also losing the trust of voters in red wall constituencies. The survey found that the Tories were trailing 16 points behind Labour in red wall seats that the PM “needs to retain to win the next election”.

Of 1,567 people quizzed in the final week of 2021 in the 57 constituencies gained by the Tories in 2019, 49% said they would vote Labour if a general election were held now, with the Conservatives on just 33%.

A total of 38% said Keir Starmer was the best person for the top job of PM, while 33% chose Johnson.

The poll also put Labour ahead in national voting intention, with Starmer’s party on 40% and the Tories on 35%.

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