Page last updated at 15:01 GMT, Wednesday, 1 July 2009 16:01 UK

Can it turn blue up North?

Angel of the North

By Anne McElvoy
Presenter, Dave's Friends in the North, BBC Radio 4

Conservatives on a charm offensive in the north of England?

When I grew up in the Billy Elliot years in north-west Durham, that was enough of a joke to call to mind the late folk singer Alex Glasgow's satire on Lord Hailsham's attempt to woo the region in his "little clorth cap" in 1963.

Now David Cameron's troops, in open-necked shirts rather than cloth caps, are making the first serious attempt in decades to woo the North: something that would have been impossible amid the bitterness and division of the Thatcher years, when deindustrialisation hit the region hard.

Dave's quest for new friends in the North is one that has fascinated me since the Conservatives set out to revive a dormant One Nation tradition and bridge the North-South divide.

But this is not just about sentiment: it's about seats. Mr Cameron is starting from a low base and he needs to win a daunting 125 to form a majority, let alone a convincing one to really trounce Labour.

Gospel of Dave

The towns and suburbs of the North West host a quarter of his key marginals. That explains why William Hague, who heads the Tories' Northern Board, spends a lot of time whizzing around Lancashire listening to local gripes and canvassing for support.

And to judge by my day out with him in the key target seat of South Ribble, he is rather more popular there than Mr Cameron. One woman even told him that she wished that he was leader.

Mr Hague smiles modestly and preaches the gospel of Dave.

David Cameron in Birkenhead in 2006
David Cameron visited Birkenhead early in his leadership

He also tells me that in his ill-fated 2001 election as leader, the North swung in his favour, the rest of the country remained impervious: "Maybe I didn't go down very well in the South."

The North East, by contrast, remains more resistant, to the frustration of some senior figures like Michael Gove and Alan Duncan who have invested their efforts in wooing the areas around Tyne and Tees.

But there is still tension in this new generation of Tories about the impact of the Thatcher years in the old industrial heartlands.

Mr Duncan regrets the decline of the old industries, but thinks apologies are over-used.

Mr Hague says that he has no regrets, having grown up in the "Soviet Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire" which he says condemned people to be "wholly dependent on the state." He adds: "No, we shouldn't say sorry for that."

Essential task

Mr Gove says "a simple sorry... would be inadequate", which cleverly suggests a mood of penitence without actually declaring it.

"Why me?," the suave son of Hertfordshire, Mr Duncan, reveals he asked plaintively when told to go and make new friends as North East envoy.

"I think you're the only one who can get away with it," replied the Tory leader.

But it is in the North West that the really important battles will be fought in the general election.

That also explains why Hazel Blears, in her first radio interview since her Cabinet resignation, emphasizes the need for Labour loyalists to focus on defending their seats - and calls for ministers for the regions to have a higher profile in Cabinet. A veiled come-back attempt, maybe?

We asked the pollsters Ipsos-Mori to show us their aggregated polling for the region. It suggests a speedy advance of Tory voting intentions in the North West: assuming that Mr Cameron can unravel the advance of UKIP before the general election.

So Ms Blears, fresh from her little local difficulty with expenses and her departure from Cabinet, tells me she has retreated to Salford to reconnect with voters and how she intends to go about it.

That is an essential task, if Labour is to regain ground in the toughest electoral battle for the North we've seen since the little clorth cap was last in political fashion.

Anne McElvoy is political columnist for the Evening Standard. She presents part one of Dave's Friends in the North on Radio 4 on Wednesday 1 July at 2045 BST, while part two goes out on Sunday 5 July at 2245 BST and is repeated on Wednesday 8 July at 2045 BST.

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