Sunday, December 10

Riven by scandal and division, the Tories have all but abandoned leveling up | John Harris

Amid the scandal, farce and disarray enveloping Boris Johnson’s government, one sudden and glaring absence seems to have been rather overlooked. Leveling up was endlessly talked about between 2019 and early 2022. It was hailed as a daring Tory stride into Labor territory, honored with a renamed ministry commanded by Michael Gove, and somewhat unconvincingly explained in the 330-page white paper that was finally published in February.

Back then, Johnson insisted that leveling up remained his “defining mission”. But only three months on, ministers barely use the term. It received only the most glancing mention at the tail end of Rishi Sunak’s spring statement, and was entirely absent from the pre-Easter “government update” that Johnson gave to the House of Commons about a fortnight ago, assuring MPs of his regrets about Partygate and his determination to get on with the job, whatever that is. Though the idea is not quite dead, it now seems to have lost so much urgency and substance that it is quickly withering away.

Much of the explanation seems to center on Sunak and the Treasury, and a battle with Gove that was settled in the chancellor’s favour. There is also talk in Westminster of other ministers and MPs from the newly empowered Tory right successfully pushing away an agenda that embodied the kind of economic interventionism they are always dead against. For all the mockery thrown at Gove and his new department of him, some of his ideas and analyzes of him are sound enough, but without money and political support, that does not count for very much at all. Worse still, a prime minister who was never really interested in detail and consistency is now mired in panic and distraction: small wonder that his government’s supposed big crusade has shriveled into a mere afterthought.

Developments that highlight that story are now piling up. From the start, there have been clear signs that even small leveling-up measures have not really been aimed at the places that need them: earlier this year, researchers at the University of West London found that 61% of England’s most deprived areas have not been allocated any money from the £4.8bn leveling-up fund. Two weeks ago, it was revealed that the government scheme designed to replace targeted funding from the EU will leave the regions of England almost £80m a year worse off. The proposed high-speed trainline from Birmingham to Leeds and a new rail link between the latter city and Manchester were canceled late last year; now, we learn that of 79 areas of England that have applied for money to improve much-needed local bus services, only 34 will receive financial help. The Liverpool City region had asked for £667m, but will get a piffling £12m; although South Yorkshire requested £474m, it is not going to receive to penny.

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In the Queen’s speech due on 10 May, there will reportedly be a new leveling-up and regeneration bill, though no one seems to be expecting much from it. The largely vague “missions” set out in the white paper – pegged to a deadline of 2030, and about regional imbalances in jobs, investment, homeownership and life expectancy – are expected to be given somewhat ambiguous legal force, and there are likely to be plans for some new return based around majors. Advance briefings have also promised new laws whereby “landlords will be forced to let out retail units that have been vacant for longer than six months”: not a bad idea, but hardly indicative of the thorough local renewal that Johnson and his colleagues once hinted at. Beyond small-scale regeneration projects, the most people can seemingly hope for is an anticlimactic utopia of warm words, pop-up shops and new local figureheads who will try to make the most of limited powers, while Whitehall and Westminster retain the whip hand.

Meanwhile, one of our most glaring imbalances of power still cries out for serious attention. With a new financial year freshly started and this week’s council elections looming, Johnson recently told the Commons that “everywhere you look at a Labor administration, it is a bankrupt shambles”. This is completely untrue (indeed, the first of the small handful of councils to have so far declared themselves broke was Tory-run Northamptonshire, while other Conservative administrations have come close), and also vivid proof that the government will still not take responsibility for the endless local crises caused by 12 years of cuts in funding from Whitehall. After more than 10 years of savings, Tory-run Stoke-on-Trent is now in the midst of £10m of cuts. In Leeds, the figure is £16m; Liverpool is trying to plug a gap of £24.5m. Mention leveling up to most council leaders – including Tories – and you will usually be met with either snorts of derision or a quiet kind of bafflement.

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The rise and fall of leveling up is really a story about Conservatism, Brexit and an increasingly inescapable tension between the people Johnson and his colleagues now claim to speak for and their own ideological tastes. Brexit re-energized their party, brought the prime minister to power, and then won him the support of traditional Labor voters who sincerely believed he might follow through on the boosterism he had voiced before the referendum – £350m extra a week on the NHS and all that – and change the places where they live after years of decline. But in Westminster, our departure from the EU also emboldened the kind of Tory neo-Thatcherites who saw Brexit as a chance to reaffirm the small-state, low-spending creed they were never going to give up.

A more substantial leader than Johnson may have tried to resolve that tension by facing such people down. But the small-staters won, and any halfway convincing ideas about leveling up were among the casualties. For plenty of Conservative MPs, that is presumably a cause for celebration. But in the disadvantaged parts of the West Midlands, post-industrial Lancashire, the old Derbyshire coalfield and the rest of the so-called “red wall”, it will probably amount to one less reason to be interested in politics and another boost for the same festering disaffection that led to Brexit. As much as any switching between parties, turnout in this week’s elections will be a useful indicator of how people in such places are starting to feel. Such are the perils of politicians such as the prime minister: cynically raising people’s hopes and then leaving them hanging is deeply dangerous behaviour, which often has consequences for the whole of politics.

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Yet there is one glimmer of hope. Even if the government discards its supposed flagship agenda, huge questions about regional inequality, deindustrialisation and where power lies are at least now being talked about. In the right hands, they could be answered with ideas about new green jobs, radically improved transport, thorough going devolution, the reinvention of higher education and much more besides. For the Tories, leveling up may go the way of David Cameron’s short-lived big society – talked up one day and blithely binned the next. Labour, by contrast, could seize the initiative, if only it could banish its current air of smallness and caution, and realize what Johnson’s retreat means: a huge, potentially historic opportunity.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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