In a much-heralded speech yesterday, the Prime Minister set out his vision for levelling up the UK, anticipating the publication of legislation on this later in the year.
Speaking in Coventry, Boris Johnson touched on a range of issues in his freewheeling (or rambling, depending on your point of view) speech, from devolution to skills to transport to sport, and pledged that levelling up should not be achieved by levelling down more prosperous regions of the country.
Despite the briefings from No 10 that this was a major intervention from the PM, the speech itself was more of a word salad, and remarkably light on policy detail. Johnson indicated that more powers should be granted to local leaders, similar to those enjoyed by metro mayors, funding for community football pitches, and…not much else. A litany of existing policies strung together, and a promise that more detail will be forthcoming in the levelling up white paper this Autumn.
But if the Government intends levelling up to be a centrepiece of its strategy, rather than of its media briefings, then much more is required than warm words. If policy is coming down the tracks courtesy of the PM’s levelling up adviser, Neil O’Brien, then it begs the question of why this speech was delivered now, rather than in the autumn? Johnson’s pitiful request to be emailed ideas for levelling up did little to dispel the view that the centrepiece of his policy is thin on ideas.
‘Levelling up’ has been at the heart of the Government’s talking points since Boris Johnson took office. In general, it’s assumed to mean investing in left-behind areas, providing jobs, infrastructure, and financing for parts of the country that need a boost, with Johnson saying that it would “raise living standards, spread opportunity, improve our public services and restore people’s sense of pride in their community”. There is an obvious political element to this programme, with the focus being on part of the country in the so-called former Red Wall that threw the 2019 general election to the Conservatives, and who now want to repay and reify that support.
Former No 10 adviser turned No 10 nemesis Dominic Cummings weighed in to describe levelling up as being a ‘vapid SW1 slogan’, meaning nothing and understood by nobody, and is the opposite of a strategy. The range of pieces trying to understand and decipher its meaning (like this) reveal its fundamental weakness – that it is all things to all people. Or in Labour’s less generous analysis, it is ‘gibberish nonsense’.
Ultimately, if levelling up is to mean anything, or to have any sort of success, it surely must boil down to a modest rebalancing of the economy within England in favour of the most deprived regions. If the Government can achieve that, it will do more for its electoral prospects than any number of planned speeches could.