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With a closed deal, can No. 10 turn “leveling up” into more than just a nebulous phrase? | North-south division

AAt a recent cabinet meeting, ministers were amused to find themselves sitting through a presentation on “achievements for 2020”. Treasury Chief Secretary Steve Barclay read a list of things the government had done well, which presumably meant he didn’t need to talk for long. “It was like, oh God, why are we doing this?” a secretary of state groaned afterward.

At least now Barclay can add “post-Brexit trade deal” to its list. It is an achievement in itself that the government was finally able, after weeks of missing supposedly strict deadlines, to announce anything as the sun went down on Christmas Eve.

Britain’s exit from the European Union and Covid-19 have naturally dominated discussions among Boris Johnson’s top team for most of this year. The latter will not cease to be a permanent item on the agenda for many months to come, but with a vaccine program underway, it seems that ministers can start planning for life after the pandemic, and perhaps even a list. of achievements worth hearing.

Brexit is also supposed to make it much easier for the prime minister to achieve his ambition to ‘level up’ the UK. When she replaced Theresa May, Johnson stood in Downing Street and promised that her government would respond “at last to the plea of ​​forgotten people and abandoned cities by physically and literally renewing the ties that bind us together to make streets safer and better. education and fantastic new road and rail infrastructure and full fiber broadband, we moved up the bar in Britain with higher wages, a higher living wage and higher productivity. He reiterated that promise after winning the 2019 general election, making it clear that he would reward new Tory voters in the ‘red wall’ seats in the old Midland and North Labor cores: “Let’s unite and level up. Join and level up. “

The first thing ministers need to do with their new free bandwidth after the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations is to find out what “leveling up” really means. They all have slightly different definitions, suggesting that if Johnson knows what it means, he hasn’t shared it with his top ministers. Leveling up runs the risk of becoming something of a nebulous political slogan like the “great society” David Cameron was talking about. “It’s a phrase that sounds meaningful and meaningless,” complains a high-level backbencher. “Who is in charge of ‘leveling up’ in this government? It is not a thing “.

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It’s true that leveling up hasn’t made much of a splash in cabinet discussions this year, even once Covid and the EU have been addressed. “You move on to things like our nature strategy or climate change,” explains a regular. “And we all think, why the hell do we have that?” But work is being done elsewhere in government to make sure 2021 is the year when leveling up becomes common political language.

Most Conservative MPs say they cannot disagree with the idea of ​​rebalancing North and South. But what this means in practice remains controversial. Some parliamentarians in the north fear that the narrative of their colleagues in government has been a bit condescending and even dismissive about the need to level up, suggesting that Westminster politicians have the kind of stereotypical view of the north as a uniformly gloomy place. Others suspect that the way the government has had to respond to Covid by throwing large sums of money at everything will be reflected in its overall approach to politics.

It will certainly be much more difficult to argue that it is not just extra money when so much was spent on the “eat out to help” scheme, for example. This is something the Treasury is painfully aware of: Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been trying for months to stem the flow of spending, but will find himself under even more pressure once the focus shifts from preventing economic disaster to rebuilding. the country. country.

Different parts of government also disagree on key issues like housing and planning. The Treasury is more interested in planning reform, seeing it as the main barrier to rapid housing expansion, while Downing Street sees housing as a key means of upgrading. This conflict could mean that neither area receives the focus it deserves.

The two departments that have been the most proactive in leveling up are Treasury and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The former rewrote the Green Book, the rulebook that determines government investment decisions, so that it no longer has an inherent bias toward southern projects. Sunak also announced a £ 4 billion equalization fund in spending review, which will provide funds of up to £ 20 million for areas to improve roads, urban centers, public transport, etc. MPs in the northern seats were delighted by this: they had been campaigning loudly for money to end the north-south divide.

BIS is also working on several projects that could be classified as leveling; insiders say that everything they do is through the lens of rebalancing the country. the “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution” announced in November is one example, with a focus on creating 250,000 “green jobs” in former industrial hubs in the north of England, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales. But even those who work closely in these areas feel that things are not moving as fast as they should.

At least those things are moving at all, and in the right direction. The same cannot be said for education. Talk to any “red wall” deputy and they will tell you that one of the biggest problems they see is that children in their district are taught to have smaller horizons than others. Teachers or parents still tell young people growing up in troubled cities that people in their area don’t go to the best colleges and certain high-paying jobs. A deputy from the Northwest explains: “We need to attract better teachers from other places because when you take it from the group of people in the local areas, it is not surprising that the level of aspiration is the same.”

But the pandemic has made it very difficult to create equal opportunities through education, and already disadvantaged children have been much more affected by their inability to access or benefit from remote learning over the past year. Ministers try to blame individual schools, but the central government has barely helped, failing to deliver the laptops that were promised to help with remote learning. More recently, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson took a U-turn by cutting funding for laptops and other technologies. And it’s still unclear whether the schools will be able to properly reopen in January in any way.

Ministers can’t afford to delay much longer before actually starting work to level up. Whether that means creating new infrastructure and housing in abandoned cities, or improving the aspirations of the children who live there, it will take even longer than the absurdly long talks about Brexit. And conservatives are well aware that if they have nothing to show “red wall” voters for the next election, they cannot be sure that they will retain those seats.

Perhaps, however, the first stage of the equalization program should involve ministers who are honest that they will not have achieved much by 2024. A former cabinet minister argues that conservatives must make it clear that this is a plan. of 10 years. “If you look at how the Blair government improved those big northern cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, it took them more than six or eight years to do it. We need to start the equalization program right now and make it clear that it’s going to take that long, so the voters need to stick with us if they’re going to get what they want in their cities. “

But voters won’t feel like there’s anything to stay for unless there’s evidence that the government really does have a leveling program that goes beyond the kind of nonsensical phrases that all conservative prime ministers of the past decade have embraced. Cameron’s great partnership was followed by Theresa May’s “fiery injustices,” and both former leaders would keep fighting to tell her what those slogans accomplished. If Johnson isn’t careful, the only list voters will remember is not his supposed 2020 accomplishments, but the ever-growing list of unrealized conservative ambitions.

• Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and host of Radio 4’s Week in Westminster

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