In 1990, Thatcher claimed that her opposition “would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich”. Over thirty years later, the Prime Minister is defending his ‘levelling up’ policy against those who are worried that making the poorer parts of the country richer will make the richer parts poorer.
Just a week before the summer recess, Johnson’s address to the West Midlands came at a crucial time to end the year on a high. Between the furore over the Government’s handling of racism within the football community and the confusion over mask-wearing policies come July 19th, it was imperative for Boris to convince those in the Midlands and the North that he is willing to invest, whilst reassuring Tory safe seats that he is not going to neglect them.
Levelling up is a flagship Tory policy and was a central theme of the Queen’s Speech. Johnson wants his Government to play a “catalytic role” in providing better transport, infrastructure and public services, creating jobs and improving townscapes so people feel proud of where they live, especially in those areas that have seemingly been left behind.
Meanwhile, he is arguing that over-investment in the South forces more and more people to move to the same expensive areas, driving up house prices and crowding-out existing infrastructure, in turn making commuting times longer.
In principle, his proposals are sound: the economy is not a zero-sum game and one only needs to look as far as his southern-oriented predecessors to see that seats in the North are what can really swing an election. Johnson is right to foster relations with the party’s supporters in what were, prior to 2019, traditional Labour heartlands and this decision may prove key to long-term electoral success. But, considering the Tories’ defeat in the Home Counties seat of Chesham and Amersham last month, they must be careful not to be seen as pivoting away from the loyal South.
Despite contention over whether levelling up will bring long-term success or shattering electoral defeat, tackling the country’s entrenched social inequalities is a noble venture. It may not be shrouded in the same righteous pomposity as Keir Starmer’s self-proclaimed “moral crusade”, but if Johnson can successfully implement his plans to amount to more than a set of perfunctory measures the economy and people will prosper.
This said, Johnson’s speech leaves a lot to be desired. Whether this shortcoming owes to how often the phrase ‘levelling up’ has been used in recent months or that a white paper is not expected until the autumn, ambiguity remains about the specifics. Aside from announcing that the Government plans to build eight new hospitals and is pledging £25 million to build new grassroots sports facilities, no one is quite sure how this levelling up will be enacted. Then again, there was never much doubt that Johnson’s address to the West Midlands would be heavy on rhetoric and light on action.
There has been some progress made on ramping up the policy, starting with the appointment of Conservative MP Neil O’Brien to help its development and claims from the Government that Johnson’s speech will act as a catalyst for igniting “a summer of engagement, seeking views and input”. For now however the policy appears to remain simply as a slogan, hopefully with uniting – not dividing – capabilities. The last thing the country needs is for counties to be further pitted against each other.
Whilst Johnson may be unable to detail the concrete plans that will form his levelling up policy, one thing is for sure: he is no Robin Hood. We can all be certain that the government will not be stealing from the rich to give to the poor but striving to create a win-win economic opportunity, bringing the country together under One Nation Conservatism.