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15 July 2021

Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” speech is a message to Blue Wall Tories

The Prime Minister is making clear the party’s new “Red Wall” voters are his priority, and MPs in traditional Conservative heartlands are nervous.

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson will deliver a major speech about his plans to “level up” the nation later this morning, arguing that his government’s efforts to boost the north and Midlands will not disadvantage the south of England.

Is it reassurance for traditional Tory voters in the south, or a rebuke to those Conservative MPs from the shires worried about losing as their party’s focus turns to the Red Wall? It is billed as the former, but sounds rather more like the latter.

The Conservatives’ recent by-election defeat in the Buckinghamshire commuter constituency of Chesham and Amersham has been a catalyst for Tory MPs’ anxieties about their party’s attitude towards its traditional voters. As I report in my recent piece on the Liberal Democrat strategy in the so-called Blue Wall, the Conservatives are thought to be vulnerable in many of their traditional, southern seats, where the Liberal Democrats are second to them. The Conservative campaign in Chesham and Amersham has been taken by nervous Tories and confident Liberal Democrats as a sign of wider Conservative complacency about its vote in the south.  

Boris Johnson will today insist that “levelling up” doesn’t involve “levelling down” the south, telling an audience in the West Midlands later this morning that it’s “not zero-sum, it’s win-win”. On planning reforms in particular, which partly drove the switch from Conservative in Chesham and Amersham, the Prime Minister will say that his vision for house-building and investment will boost all regions by relieving pressure on the “overheated” south, where home ownership is often more expensive.

[see also: Boris Johnson’s liberal Planning Bill will divide Tories]

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The subtext is that the Prime Minister is frustrated with what he considers to be the “Nimbys” – “not in my back yard” – in his party who, in his view, do not realise that the party will struggle in the long term if it doesn’t sort out home ownership: homeowners in the north are there for the Conservatives’ taking, while home ownership needs to become a less remote prospect for young people in the south if they are to vote Conservative. 

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The trouble is, however, that it’s not just the issue of planning reforms threatening the traditional Conservative vote. As one senior Liberal Democrat said gleefully to me: “The Tories still don’t know why they lost in Chesham and Amersham.” It’s true. Different Conservative MPs each give their own account of why the party lost: it was all about HS2, says one, or planning, says another, while another worries about Boris Johnson’s unpopularity among southern, former Remain voters, and another, again, simply credits the Liberal Democrats with sharpening their ground game. 

Today’s speech shows Johnson isn’t willing to have that conversation. He is not going to analyse and agonise over that rare personal defeat in Chesham and Amersham, learning lessons and perhaps reorienting towards his party’s traditional core vote as a result.

Instead, the Prime Minister’s speech reaffirms his focus on his party’s new voters in traditional Labour heartlands. It will make the case that his levelling up agenda is beneficial to everyone, but it won’t do much to reassure Conservative MPs in the south. They will hear from this speech that Johnson knows he has a diverse coalition of voters to hold together at the next election, and he has already decided that if they need to lose votes somewhere, it should be in their southern seats, rather than in the Red Wall.