Northern Research Group: Are professionalised backbench groupings the next powerbase at Westminster?

Alex Briggs

In the aftermath of the 2019 General Election, the working theory was that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had won himself not only a thumping majority, but also the loyalty of his backbenchers, the lack of which had so spectacularly caused the downfall of his predecessor.

New MPs in a whole host of midlands and northern constituencies, the theory went, would know that they owed their jobs to the Prime Minister and his promise to level-up the country, would know that without him the Conservatives would never have won certain seats for the first time ever, and would swear him their eternal fealty.

Needless to say, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Quickly these new MPs started to look forward to the next General Election, and realise that the downside to winning seats that you haven’t held in generations is that it is very difficult to keep them. For many new Conservative MPs, their nascent careers now hinged on being able to persuade the Government to stay true to its word, and get started on levelling-up immediately. The only question remained how to do it.

Before COVID-19, there was a time when these new persuaders would have exchanged suggestions in passing corridors, plotted in the House of Commons bar, or met up in a committee room, talking just loud enough for the well-briefed lobby journalists in the corridor outside to be able to hear. Such is our new reality, however, that the majority of these covert discussion have happened in Whatsapp groups.

Until this week, when the Northern Research Group announced that it was stepping out of Whatsapp groups and into the Westminster office with the planned hire of three policy advisers brought in to professionalise its operations and policy offer.

This example, and the potential for other groups to follow it, raises questions about where power lies within the House of Commons. As backbench groupings start to formalise their power and policy offering, we must ask ourselves whether they represent a new permanent powerbase opening up at Westminster.

Parliamentary arithmetic is definitely on the side of backbench groupings. The Government’s majority of 80 is quite a useful size for mischievous would-be rebels: small enough to mean that the concerns of your backbench grouping can’t be ignored, but big enough to mean that backbench groupings can’t be accused of disloyalty or putting the Government under more pressure than it can handle.

Furthermore, the unknown quantity that these new backbench groupings possess means that they’re likely to be granted plenty of leeway by the Government, who will be extremely keen to keep them inside the tent at the beginning of their relationship through concessions and access rather than starting things off on the wrong foot and risking all-out rebellion.

There is even a possibility that backbench groupings could steal some of the political capital and Governmental attention that Select Committees currently hold. Although the latter’s responsibility is enshrined in Parliamentary convention, in recent years they’ve shifted slightly towards more headline-grabbing behaviour, and the inclusion of opposition MPs makes them naturally more tribal, making the Government less inclined to try and build bridges with them.

The Government will be desperate to build bridges (literal and metaphorical) to keep the NRG on-side though, and industries and organisations that align themselves with their aims could find themselves with an emerging powerbase on their side. Expect backbench groupings and their increasing professionalisation to be a key story of the remainder of this Parliament, particularly as the next General Election draws closer and voters begin to consider whether voting for the Conservatives for the first time ever in 2019 was worth it.