Boris Johnson is right. Britain does need “levelling up”, and on the day in which he gave his big levelling-up speech – which would contain sort of the general idea of the big thing he wants to do as prime minister, having already been prime minister for two years – he could hardly have been luckier to have been furnished with such a clear example of the problem he must solve.
There on the front page of The Sun, was an interview with the flare-up-his-backside “yob” who found viral notoriety on Sunday afternoon. Inside could be found the details of how he had drunk 20 cans of Strongbow, taken a load of cocaine, stuck a firework up his backside and blagged his way into Wembley.
And this really is where the levelling-up agenda comes in to play. If Charlie Perry, a 25-year-old roofer from Sunbury-on-Thames had just had the foresight to wreak his trail of wanton devastation while wearing a blue tailcoat and mustard waistcoat instead of an England kit, and had lined up somebody’s daddy to call up the next day and settle the bill for his self-indulgent carnage, well The Sun wouldn’t be publicly shaming him on the front page, it would be campaigning to make him prime minister.
Boris Johnson knows that has to change – and here was a vision of exactly how it could change. Here he was, not bent over in Leicester Square, but behind a lectern in Coventry, firing a great red cloud of nothing out of his face anus and waiting for the applause.
And the applause did not come. Just a sense of baffled wonderment, that a 22-minute stream of consciousness word fart about crime and schools and broadband and hospitals and “leadership”, is really all he’s got after two full years to think about it. This is really all he’s got.
It was chastening, really. Some of us have written on more than one occasion that Boris Johnson shouldn’t be underestimated, that he’s actually a doer, not just a talker. That he knows well enough that if this levelling-up stuff turns out to be nothing more than meaningless noise then he won’t really have much with which to win the next election, at which he won’t have Brexit and Corbyn to bank on. But there really doesn’t appear to be anything there at all.
We would, naturally, have to be told that the “ketchup of catch-up is leadership”, because when you’ve got a columnist for a prime minister, who needs a policy when there’s a pun instead?
If the ketchup of catch-up is indeed leadership, then there was also something of a cartoon blood bath at the end; when it was pointed out to him that, well, leadership doesn’t necessarily involve him and his ministers encouraging England fans to boo their own players when they protest against anti-racism, then imagining they can just come out and condemn it all at the end when the racism all gets a bit too much.
Johnson, naturally, repeated that he is “against racism”. Which he is. He is against the kind of horrific, foul-mouthed vitriol with which several England players’ social media accounts were bombarded on Sunday night. He’s against the sort of badly spelled, inarticulate angry racism that your average England “yob” comes out with.
But he’s not against his own racism, which isn’t blunt and vulgar – it’s jovial and loquacious and light-hearted. It’s about likening Muslim women to letterboxes and bank robbers, and the Congolese men who have just “put down their pangas” in order to break in to “watermelon smiles”.
If he’s looking for an actual vision for his levelling-up agenda, because there certainly wasn’t one to be found today, then he could do worse than to start here. This could be what the levelling-up agenda is all about – to make everyone better racists.
At the moment, if you happen to be born in the wrong place, with the wrong opportunities, the best you can hope for is to fire your racism into Bukayo Saka’s DMs for free. Yet if you go to Eton, you can learn how to really craft your prejudices into something far more socially acceptable, and maybe one day The Daily Telegraph will even pay you 250 grand a year for them.
OK look, be realistic, it’ll probably never happen. But what’s wrong with a bit of hope? If a man can stick a flare up his arse and set it on fire, why shouldn’t he be allowed to dream as well? If Boris Johnson can do it then, in the just world Boris Johnson says he wants to build, absolutely anybody can.