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After the euphoria among the Tory faithful over Boris Johnson’s speech to their rally, today we have a welcome dose of something closer to reality. No, not an admission the country is in a cost-of-living crisis; that would be asking too much.
But some ministers are admitting privately that Johnson’s flagship programme to “level up” the UK will take 10 years, as we have reported today.
It is dawning on sensible senior Tories that, more than two years into his premiership, Johnson’s pet project is running as late as the trains in the north (whose reliability he wants to improve). When he won power in 2019, he had to “get Brexit done”. When he won the election that December, his closest aides admitted to me that they had little idea of how to turn his “levelling up” rhetoric into policy.
Of course, infrastructure projects were always going to take years. Ministers tried to plug the gap by funnelling government grants under schemes such as the Towns Fund into mainly Tory-held seats in the north and Midlands. But Johnson’s project was exposed as an empty vessel when he ill-advisedly made a speech about it in July.
Now the prime minister has put two of the best Tory brains in charge of rescuing his big idea – and showing “red wall” voters some tangible gains before the next election. Michael Gove heads the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and his ministerial team includes Neil O’Brien, a former Treasury adviser who was already drafting a white paper for Johnson on the issue, due by the end of this year.
If anyone can define “levelling up” and make it work, then Gove and O’Brien can. Gove will do what he has done in previous briefs like environment and justice: rip up his predecessor’s policies. So Robert Jenrick’s shake-up of planning rules to allow more housebuilding are toast. Allies told me in the margins of the Tory conference that Gove will kill two birds with one stone, by linking housing to “levelling up.” The aim will be to create clusters of firms in new industries like green energy in the north, with the new housing needed to support them. Voters in the Tories’ “blue wall” in the south, where nimbyism is strong, will be told that most new housebuilding will be in the north but be asked to accept a modest increase in their areas.
There is a lot riding on the white paper, the last chance to make “levelling up” work. A key test will be whether it includes “metrics” so progress can be measured and the government held accountable. O’Brien is instinctively sympathetic but it would be a huge gamble for Johnson, for example, to promise an increase in life expectancy in a “left behind” area. It would be inviting local people to kick him out if such goals were not met. Yet without targets, the strategy will lack credibility. One compromise would be to allow elected mayors, the number of which Gove wants to increase, to set their own “levelling up” targets. That would not be without risk for the Tories, since Labour won 11 of the 13 mayoral elections in England in May.
Today’s reality check from ministers about the time “levelling up” will take was coupled with a call for a downpayment to keep voters sweet with pre-election tax cuts. This will be harder than they think. Rishi Sunak was deadly serious when he told the conference he needed to put the public finances on a “sustainable footing” before reducing taxes. More realistic would be a tax cuts promise in the Tory manifesto. Johnson will be beating his neighbour’s door down to secure a pre-election move; but voters would rightly be sceptical of a manifesto commitment now Johnson has broken his 2019 pledge not to raise national insurance.
New roads, bridges, better rail services and sprucing up high streets will inevitably take longer than the three years remaining until 2024, when Johnson will have to seek a new mandate. Yet his biggest red wall problem now is that such improvements risk being eclipsed by a cost-of-living crisis that will hit voters in the poorest regions the hardest, making his promise to “level up” ring even more hollow.