George Osborne was in Manchester yesterday, dangling goodies in front of the region’s bigwigs and noting pointedly that he is only the second chancellor of the exchequer in history to have a constituency in the north of England.
If it all seemed a bit shameless, that’s because it was. It was electioneering, pure and simple. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are, after all, in the election campaign already. (In fact, it feels like we’ve been in it for much of this parliament.)
There’s also nothing new in stating the Tories have a northern “problem”. Last month’s local elections was a reminder of just how big a problem it is. Yet I’d argue it’s not so big that it demands a solution – at least, not one that needs to be found in the next 12 months.
Of the 40 seats it will be easiest (on paper) for the Tories to win at the election in May 2015, only 10 are in the north of England.
Four are in the north-west: Bolton West, Wirral South, Blackpool South and Chorley. The other six are spread across the Yorkshire and Humber region: Great Grimsby, Morley & Outwood (Ed Balls’ seat), Halifax, Wakefield, Middlesbrough South & Cleveland East and Scunthorpe.
That’s not many. Just a quarter, in fact, of the seats that ought to turn Tory on a uniform swing of around 3%.
Crucially, the party can secure a majority at the election if it fails to win a single one of these seats – just as long as it picks up at least half of the others on the top 40 list.
If the Conservatives win every constituency they won in 2010, then add another 20 more, they’ll have hit the magic figures of 326 seats: the number needed for a majority in the House of Commons.
Those 20 gains don’t have to be in the north of England at all.
Moreover, the party can also afford to not win any of its London targets (Hampstead & Kilburn, Sutton & Cheam, Eltham, Westminster North and Tooting) or its trio of targets in Wales (Bridgend, Delyn and Vale of Clwyd).
Essentially, the party can throw all its resources in the Midlands and south of England and more or less forget trying to gain any additional seats elsewhere in the UK.
There are nine targets alone in south-west England: Southampton Itchen, Dorset Mid & Poole North, Wells, St Austell & Newquay, Plymouth Moor View, St Ives, Somerton & Frome, Southampton Test and Chippenham.
A further 12 could be picked up in the Midlands: Solihull, Derby North, Dudley North, Telford, Walsall North, Birmingham Edgbaston, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Walsall South, Nottingham South, Gedling, Derbyshire North East and Wolverhampton North East.
Just those two regions would give the party a total of 21 gains, which, when added to the 306 they won last time, would give the Tories 327: a notional majority of two.
I appreciate this is very much the absolute bare minimum the Conservatives would need to do, and not what they would want to be seen to be doing (at least not publicly).
It would also be to ignore those seats in the north of England that are vulnerable Tory marginals, such as Stockton South (majority 332), Lancaster & Fleetwood (333), Carlisle (853) and Morecambe & Lunesdale (866).
But might this be a sacrifice worth making?
I can foresee one outcome for the 2015 election that leaves the UK even more divided into a Labour north and Conservative south, with either party making gains at the other’s expense, but only in one half of the country.
Yet such an outcome could also deliver the Tories a majority. It’s one that would please the party’s pragmatists more than its idealists, but at the end of the day they’d still be in power (and no longer in a coalition).
The next election is not going to be about landslides and comfortable working majorities. It is going to be about tiny shifts of support in a handful of seats, leading most probably to another hung parliament.
Aspiring to dozens of gains across the UK is all very well, but concentrating purely on seats you are likely to win, rather than those you merely hope to gain, feels to me like it could be the more sensible and ultimately rewarding strategy.