Boris Johnson was a prime minister who won the 2019 election on his promise to “Get Brexit Done”.
Victory secured, the way he planned to secure those gains in the old Labour heartlands was to make it his “mission” to level up the country and make sure that opportunity was brought to those parts of the country long left behind.
More than two years into his premiership, the much-awaited government blueprint to level up the country has finally been published. A weighty White Paper, it is over 330 pages long and with twelve guiding aims, from closing regional pay gaps to investing in local town centres, bus services, local schools and hospitals.
Levelling up short on detail and no new money
It’s a policy prospectus big on ideas and promises, like a big amorphous bucket of possibilities for improving the UK. But what was immediately noticeable too, is this is a blueprint that stitched together of schemes already announced and with no new funding from Treasury.
Perhaps the most eye-catching of new pledges was to extend the possibility of London-style mayors to more parts of England if local communities wanted it.
At its heart, this prospectus is designed to tackle regional inequalities by the end of this decade. A pledge made in 2019 and with a two-term time stamp, the Conservative government then with its work cut out to demonstrate tangible change for voters by the next election in a few years’ time.
This then an important moment for the prime minister to lead on an agenda that critics argue is ill-defined. This exactly the announcement which in better times for Mr Johnson would have been furnished with a prime ministerial speech in one of those marginal new Blue Wall constituencies.
Instead, Michael Gove, the Levelling Up cabinet secretary, was left to announce the programme from the backdrop of SW1.
That the prime minister chose not to try to turbocharge his national mission with a big public splash is a reflection of the political paralysis he finds himself in as he fights day to day for survival against the backdrop of a sulphurous parliamentary party. Perhaps he will go on tour and grab some photo opportunities on Thursday instead.
What does ‘levelling up’ actually mean?
With the PM holed up in Westminster, we travelled to Stoke-on-Trent in the West Midlands where the Conservatives took all three Labour parliamentary seats in 2019, to talk to some local business owners and residents about what levelling up meant to them.
A key brick in the Conservative red wall, Stoke-on-Trent is now at the heart of the levelling up agenda. The local authority was awarded £56m in ‘levelling up’ funds in last year’s Budget to regenerate Hanley and build new homes and commercial spaces in some of the city’s old ceramic works.
The business owners I met, Josef Bailey and Chris Cohen, were enthusiastic about the investment from government and prospect for regenerating not just the old ceramics district where they’d set up restaurants, but the broader ambition for their community.
“This city hinges itself on things happening,” Josef told me. For Chris, levelling up is “not something that can be judged in one breath. I’d like to judge it in 10, 20, 30 years time”.
But when I chatted to the people in the town of Hanley about what levelling up meant to them, the most popular refrain was “I don’t think anyone knows to be honest” with locals not sure what levelling up actually means, despite millions of pounds being poured into their town centre.
Perhaps that will change in the coming years as the regeneration becomes real and visible, but what the people I spoke to felt was frustration at the way in which their local environment had been allowed to get so run down over so many years. People spoke of poor local transport and local services and expressed scepticism that things might change.
‘Extremely ambitious’ targets unlikely to be met
Whether the government can really succeed in tackling long-term regional inequalities over the course of this decade is a very open question.
As Paul Johnson, director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, put it, the document provided good analysis and targets with an ambition “transcending normal political timescales”.
But he also warned that many of the goals set out looked “extremely ambitious – that is to say highly unlikely to be met, even with the best policies and much resource.
“There is little detail on how most of them will be met, and less detail on available funding. There is something for everyone, and hence little sense of prioritisation: ambition and resource will be spread very thin.”
Focus should be on people not infrastructure
And what does levelling up mean anyhow if people are struggling in their daily lives to make ends meet? Dr Miatta Fahnbulleh, Chief Executive of the New Economics Foundation think tank, says the current approach focuses too much on infrastructure.
“If you look at much of the country that’s held back, that remedy just doesn’t work,” she says. “You need to start with the people, you need to start trying to drive up living standards.”
Sunak’s chance to shine?
On Thursday, the chancellor will look to address exactly that when he’s expected to announce that millions of people are expected to get rebates worth hundreds of pounds on their council tax bills to limit the impact of soaring energy prices for poorer homes.
He is also expected to give all households a one-off discount of £200 on their energy bills in April via state-backed loans.
Add to fuel price increases rising inflation and the national insurance hike coming this April, and the hard reality bites for millions of families that are more in need to make ends meet for their families than closing the inequality gap with other parts of the country by 2030.
But beyond all of that, the people I spoke to in Stoke on Wednesday have lost faith in Boris Johnson.
Mr Bailey, who is a Conservative voter, told me he doesn’t think Mr Johnson should lead lead the party into the next election and believes Rishi Sunak, the chancellor who visited his business in Stoke but two weeks ago, is a better bet.
Evie, a civil servant having coffee in Josef’s restaurant with friends, puts it like this: “I’m not a fan of Boris Johnson. I think he’s an ‘all fur coat, no knickers’ sort of guy. The sort of guy – that says all these things – and like most politicians and doesn’t deliver.”
From Josef to Evie, the rows over parties has cut through in Stoke on Trent with even those who like Boris Johnson the politician.
Paul, who is now retired and backed Mr Johnson in 2019, also thinks Mr Johnson is a busted flush and says Mr Sunak would make a better Tory leader.
“[Boris Johnson’s] a buffoon, he’s a loveable fella. I think he’s done a great job. But I don’t think he’ll ride this out. I think Rishi will takeover. And I have no idea what levelling up means.”