Ahead of the White Paper expected later this year, the Prime Minister has sketched out his plan to “level up” the country. PLMR have identified four key takeaways from his Coventry speech, which can be accessed in full here.
- The Government wants to shore up its support in the South East – Whilst much of the core content of this speech was recycled, one novel theme throughout was its focus on London and the South East. Unlike previous iterations, a large part of the speech’s narrative was dispelling any notion that levelling up is a ‘zero-sum game.’ This was best illustrated by Johnson’s flower analogy, where he said: “we don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies, we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer.” Rather than reallocating prosperity, or “jam spreading” in his words, the Prime Minister outlined his ambition to increase the total share of wealth. The introduction of such language has been motivated by recent stirrings of ‘southern discomfort’ amongst Southern Conservative MPs, not least following the Chesham and Amersham by-election. The sense amongst some of this cohort is that the focus on the Red Wall is coming directly at their cost, especially in terms of access to funding for their parts of the country and voter support. The May 6 elections also caused alarm, and showed a consistent pattern of towns in the South East shifting away from the Conservatives. This speech should be seen as conscious effort by the Prime Minister to alleviate these concerns.
- Uncertainty still remains over what levelling up means – It’s been over 18 months since Johnson articulated his vision to level up the country, and yet, the policy is still heavy on rhetoric and short on substance. Explicit policy objectives are yet to be decided, and despite the focus remaining on opportunity, education and life expectancy, concrete targets are few and far between. It’s hard to see how these soundbites square with the Government’s recent decision to ignore the Education Recovery Commissioner’s recommendations. The fact the speech’s delivery coincided with the release of the National Food Strategy also suggests it was never intended to be momentous, and this was confirmed by its lack of substance and coherence. The challenge for the Government is that the clock is ticking ahead of the next election and the window for translating this rhetoric into a series of tangible policies is decreasing.
- Failing to re-balance the UK economy has consequences for those in London and the South East – Johnson was keen to point out that the process of levelling up is not just aimed at creating opportunity throughout the UK, but relieving the pressure on London and the South East as well. This is a new argument to support the Government’s vision, and again is likely to be aimed at Tory heartlands in places like Chesham and Amersham. Much of the electorate there will understand the issues cited by Johnson here, especially when it comes to house price inflation, overly crowded trains, and most interestingly, a fear that their “leafy suburb or village will be engulfed by new housing development but without the infrastructure to go with it.”
- More devolution might be on the cards – At the end of what was a fairly fragmented speech, Johnson mentioned the possibility of directly elected mayors for individual counties, saying “there is no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers we have devolved to city leaders so that they can take charge of levelling up.” Despite feeling as if it was aimlessly tacked onto the end of the speech, it may hint at the Government’s future plans for devolution. Johnson was full of praise for West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, suggesting that the mayoral blueprint may be applied elsewhere. The Government will have been torn about furthering the devolution agenda as it also means giving more powers to the many Labour Metro Mayors across the country. The acrimonious negotiations with Andy Burnham over the imposition of local Covid restrictions is something Number 10 will not have forgotten, making this kite-flying by Johnson an interesting development.