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1 February 2022

Levelling up won’t save Boris Johnson

Michael Gove has failed to win the backing he needs from Rishi Sunak and other cabinet ministers.

By Harry Lambert

Boris Johnson will survive in office for as long as 180 Conservative MPs (half the parliamentary party plus one) believe that keeping him in power benefits them. Given that Johnson can dangle more than 100 government jobs before MPs, and try to buy off others with specific policy concessions, there is a chance that he will survive in No 10 for far longer than any rationalist Tory strategist would like.

But if the Tory party fails to get rid of Johnson, eventually the country will decide whether to get rid of him, perhaps along with many Tory MPs (as the polls currently suggest). And that decision by voters, especially in the Red Wall seats that are said to have conditionally “lent” Johnson their vote in 2019, will in large part be determined by the success or failure of “levelling up” – Johnson’s flagship agenda for government, yet so far a remarkably hollow one.

Tomorrow, two and a half years after Johnson entered Downing Street, that agenda will finally be given definition in a long-awaited government white paper. That paper – overseen by Michael Gove and written in part by Andy Haldane, the former Bank of England chief economist and New Statesman contributor – will, I am told, be heavy on analysis and light on solutions. Journalists are already bemused by its reported length, 400 pages, and will probably be amused by its august references to past efforts at levelling up in Medici Florence and elsewhere.

The likely failure of this agenda is a serious issue. Johnson’s entire premise for remaining in office is to make good on his bid to “level up this country”. Yet sources inside government stress that Gove – the government’s fixer-in-chief – has found it extremely difficult to agree a coherent plan for change across Whitehall for two reasons: a lack of Treasury funding, and a lack of commitment from other ministers, who have been insufficiently incentivised to help him produce new policies or plans.

Nothing cross-departmental has ever fared well in Whitehall unless the prime minister is considered to be truly behind it, with rewards for those who deliver and consequences for those who fail to do so. It is very difficult to get individual departments to engage in a project they do not own, as Gove found in recent months when he lobbied other ministers to put forward ideas or attend meetings. Ministers would often not turn up, sending junior ministers in their place – if they sent anyone at all – while many of the ideas submitted were rehashed departmental projects already in motion.

The other major problem for Gove has been the reluctance of the Treasury to fund levelling up, given that department’s natural reticence to fund any new government scheme, and the extraordinary costs already absorbed in dealing with the pandemic. Others involved in generating ideas for levelling up, such as Neil O’Brien, the thoughtful Tory MP, have suggested that money is not critical to the agenda but in reality any programme is difficult to achieve without new resources, not least one as ambitious as the government’s stated aim. 

“The basic problem,” says Geoff Mulgan, who ran Tony Blair’s policy unit in the early 2000s, “is that they’re trying to change a vast array of economic and social geography.” That, Mulgan adds with civil service understatement, “is a difficult task”.

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Under Blair, Mulgan was involved in a programme to level up the country’s 2,000 poorest housing estates: a considerable task in itself. Crucially, that programme involved a commitment to improve both the absolute and the relative wealth of those estates; for the programme to succeed, other areas had to, in effect, be levelled down. It is not clear if the Tories’ version of levelling up will commit to the same relative shift, which would necessitate the south getting relatively poorer. “No one likes falling relatively behind,” notes Mulgan.

Levelling up is also, ironically, a response to the Tory austerity of the past decade. But while there is plenty of data on which councils were hit hardest by austerity, Mulgan adds, it is impossible to see how Johnson or indeed Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, will reverse the cuts councils suffered in anything other than a fairly cosmetic way, because doing so would challenge the core mission of many Tory MPs – to reduce the size of the state, cut taxes and protect the wealth of southern constituencies. Johnson is especially ill-placed to confront his southern MPs now that he is reliant on their support to stay in office.

First Brexit and then the pandemic gave Johnson cover for his failure to have any coherent policy to level up the country upon entering office in 2019, or in the years since. But the government’s inability to deliver substantively for its voters in Red Wall seats or elsewhere is likely to damn its already poor prospects at the next election. Tomorrow’s levelling up paper is set to be too little, too late – for Johnson, and for the voters who once trusted him.

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