After his triumph in last December’s general election, Boris Johnson called his new programme for government the “most radical Queen’s Speech in a generation”. In nearly every major speech since he became prime minister, he has used the term “levelling up” to describe his plan to rebalance the economy like never before.
The following January, a blog by his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, urged “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to apply for jobs at No 10. Searching the term “Dominic Cummings maverick” throws up 663,000 results on Google; it’s a reputation built on the unexpected success of the Vote Leave campaign he masterminded, the “dark arts” he deployed as special adviser at the Department for Education, his clashes with the lobby of parliamentary journalists, his warnings that a “hard rain is coming” for Whitehall, and a wardrobe of oversized tracksuits.
This is a government that claims to be doing things differently: a government unafraid of dismissing the status quo and disregarding the structures, norms and interests of previous governments and Tory party administrations.
The fairly prosaic issue of remote working, however, shows how undeserved this reputation really is.
For nearly a week, ministers and Tory MPs have been begging workers to begin returning to their offices. This is seen as necessary to propping up the commuter, lunchtime and after-work economy, supported perhaps by a sense that being physically present at work is the proper way to go about it.
A truly radical government would already have planned for the implications of an increasingly remote workforce. After all, modern working practices were shifting long before coronavirus came along. Between 2012 and 2016, flexi-time rose by 12.35 per cent, according to data released by the Office for National Statistics, and the Trades Union Congress found in 2016 that the number of people working remotely had increased by nearly a quarter of a million over the preceding decade.
No serious programme to redress regional economic imbalances could ignore the opportunities presented by this trend. There are already hopes among the UK business community that increased home-working will benefit local shops and cafés, and could lead to a revival of the suburban high street.
This is a chance to “level up” that is being ignored by government ministers who are desperately trying to revive the old model: spending heavily on cars and trains fares five days a week, to travel to an arbitrary (and expensive) central location.
“Boris Johnson has set out an agenda for levelling up every part of the UK – not just investing in our great towns and cities, as well as rural and coastal areas, but giving them far more control of how that investment is made,” reads the 2019 Conservative manifesto.
“In the 21st century, we need to get away from the idea that ‘Whitehall knows best’ and that all growth must inevitably start in London.”
But at the moment, ministers are literally attempting to “lead by example” by reinstating civil servants in their departments, rather than fostering a potential boom for residential businesses and thoroughfares.
With the scale and swiftness of the introduction of the furlough scheme, and the unique nature of Eat Out to Help Out, this government has shown it can dream up successful and unconventional solutions to unavoidable economic shocks.
It is strange, then, that it is so eager to leave that approach behind as a one-off moment of summer madness and return to an uncreative, backward-looking version of a country that no longer exists.