When Boris Johnson ran for the Conservative leadership last year, there were only a handful of people within the party he could fully rely on to back his bid. One of those people was Jake Berry.
But the former minister, who has been Tory MP for Rossendale and Darwen in Lancashire since 2010, has gone from an ally of the prime minister to an outspoken critic, and not without drama.
On Monday, Berry wrote a headline-grabbing letter, co-signed by more than 50 Conservative MPs from northern England, expressing concerns the government will break its promise to “level up” the country and urging him to provide a “clear roadmap” out of localised lockdowns. While Berry insisted it was not a revolt or the start of a “blue wall” rebellion, it was interpreted as exactly that.
Serving as northern powerhouse minister under Theresa May and later Johnson, Berry had once been one of Johnson’s keenest supporters – alongside fellow MPs Nigel Adams and Ben Wallace – chaperoning the future PM around parliament to conjure up support for his leadership bid.
But according to reports, as Johnson headed toward the top job, Berry was overlooked in favour of MPs who had been involved with the Vote Leave campaign. In February he turned down a job in the Foreign Office during a cabinet reshuffle, saying as a father of three young children he could not accept a role which “would have required substantial amounts of foreign travel”.
A Labour councillor at Rossendale borough council within Berry’s constituency claimed Berry had effectively been sacked from cabinet and that the letter this week was him “exacting his revenge” over his treatment. “I think he’s now reeling from the fact that he got sacked despite being incredibly loyal to [Johnson’s] leadership campaign,” they added, without agreeing to be named.
Peter Steen, the Conservative group leader for the council, who has known Berry for the decade he has held the seat – previously represented by Labour’s Janet Anderson – admitted that Berry had been wounded by losing his ministerial role but said “he accepts the ups and downs of the game”.
A born and bred northerner, having been brought up in Liverpool before studying law at the University of Sheffield, Berry was motivated “by the people he represents”, said Steen.
“When he was a minister, yes, he enjoyed the position. But he’s not driven by personal aggrandisement,” said Steen. “I had a conversation with him at the weekend and it’s not that at all, he’s representing the people of the north. He’s not there to be a cheerleader, he’s there to support and represent his community.”
Meanwhile, Andrew Percy, one of the signatories of Berry’s letter to Johnson and Berry’s predecessor as northern powerhouse minister, insisted the missive was merely a request made of the government, rather than outright criticism.
“The letter was not done in a critical way,” he said. “Covid of course has focused all attention elsewhere so this is just an attempt to put the [Northern Research] Group on the radar and to push the need for a proper post-Covid vision.”
Within his own constituency, views on Berry appear to be mixed. A business owner in Edenfield said: “You do see him around and I suppose he does support local people, but with all MPs they’ve got their own personal agenda. I don’t know what he wants to achieve professionally [with the letter] but hopefully it’s for the benefit of us all.”
Steen added that in recent months the MP had “got a bit of flak” after it was revealed he had been living in Anglesey, north Wales, rather than his constituency during the national lockdown (Berry said he had been at his property thereafter visiting family when lockdown was announced, and then had to self-isolate before deciding not to travel for public health reasons).
But the main issue facing him now on the ground was his decision to vote with the government last week in opposing the extension of free school meals during the holidays.
The Labour councillor said the vote had been at odds with Berry’s supposed support for the north. “People are at best disappointed and at worst really, really angry,” he said.
Berry was approached for comment.