Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ speech: what he said – and what he really meant

·4-min read

What Boris Johnson said: I wish I could tell you that this pandemic that we’re going through was over; I wish I could say that from Monday we could simply throw caution to the winds and behave exactly as we did before we had ever heard of Covid.

What he really meant: That is what I told you, but I now have to untell you. Go to work, don’t go to work. Throw away your masks, put your masks on. Full speed backwards.

What he said: It is highly probable – and on this the scientists are almost all agreed – that the worst of the pandemic is now behind us.

What he meant: The good times have been postponed again.

What he said: There is every prospect that this country is poised to recover like a coiled spring.

What he meant: Tomorrow and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools.

What he said: It is the mission of this government to ensure that in so far as Covid has entrenched problems and deepened inequalities – we need now to work double hard to overturn those inequalities.

What he meant: The central soviet has ordered that work quotas be doubled.

What he said: No one believes – I don’t believe, you don’t believe – that there is any basic difference in the potential of babies born across this country. Everyone knows that talent and energy and enthusiasm and flair are evenly spread across the UK – evenly spread – it is opportunity that is not, and it is the mission of this government to unite and level up across the whole UK.

What he meant: Please ignore all that stuff I said in the Margaret Thatcher Memorial Lecture in 2013 about inequality being inevitable.

What he said: Let us be clear about the difference between this project and levelling down.

What he meant: Levelling up is not levelling down.

What he said: We don’t want to level down. We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies, we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer.

What he meant: We want a bigger poppyseed cake. We want to eat it and have it too.

What he said: Governments have end[ed] up investing in areas where house prices are already sky high and where transport is already congested and by turbo charging those areas, especially in London and the south east … the result is that their commutes are longer, their trains are more crowded, they have less time with their kids.

What he meant: London. Ghastly place. Whoever has been running it in recent years has done a terrible job.

What he said: Levelling up is not a jam-spreading operation; it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul; it’s not a zero sum; it’s win-win for the whole United Kingdom.

What he meant: I offer you not bad things but good things.

What he said: And so here is the plan for levelling up. And I believe we will have made progress in levelling up when we have begun to raise living standards, spread opportunity, improved our public services and restored people’s sense of pride in their community.

What he meant: There is no plan.

What he said: I can today announce another £50m for football pitches.

What he meant: Here is a football pitch instead, a trivial sum of money that has already been announced.

What he said: When I became prime minister almost exactly two years ago, 7 per cent of the country, I never tired of saying at the time, had gigabit connection. By the end of the year we will be hitting 60 per cent.

What he meant: Time is running out. I am not new and exciting any more. I am making a big speech about what I intend to do in government, and I am already about halfway through a normal period in office. Still, no need to dwell on the depressing stuff.

What he said: That has the potential to revolutionise our patterns of work and … professionals will be able to stay and bring up their families and enjoy a higher quality of life without the need to move to the supposedly fashionable conurbation.

What he meant: All these people who think the streets of London are paved with gold: I told you, it’s a dreadful place. Stay away.

What he said: The levelling-up fund, worth £4.8bn, to be spent across the whole of Britain – England, Scotland and Wales – and town deals – another 15 of them announced today …

What he meant: Fiddly little schemes.

What he said: Though each change may be small, the overall effect can be transformed in making that environment attractive as a place to live and bring up a family and to invest.

What he meant: The emperor has new clothes; the fairies are at the bottom of the garden; you just have to believe.

What he said: Then there is one final ingredient, the most important factor in levelling up, the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up – and that is leadership.

What he meant: My idea of leadership is playing with words and cheering everybody up. If you press wallahs at the back are not uplifted you are failing in your patriotic duty.

What he said: Already after 20 years of trial and error we are starting to see the results of this devolution.

What he meant: Devolution has been a disaster in Scotland but in a few places in England people have elected Tory mayors such as me, and that has gone pretty well, I think everyone agrees.

What he said: You can see the risk and the catch in all this: we have to learn the lessons of the last 50 years. The Ken Livingstone of the 2000s was a very different creature from the Ken Livingstone of the 1980s, but the loony left remains pretty loony and we need accountability.

What he meant: Vote Tory, or it doesn’t count.

What he said: The towns and cities that people say have been left behind have not lacked for human ingenuity, they have not been short of people with courage or intelligence or imagination ... they don’t think that they are left behind and they are right.

What he meant: Ignore that bit earlier in the speech when I referred to “the places that have been left behind”.

What he said: They think that they are the future, or could be the future, and they are right about that too; all they need is the right people to believe in them, to lead them, and to invest in them.

What he meant: Vote Labour.

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