COVID-19: Boris Johnson’s breezy promise to ‘level up’ the country now seems a lot trickier
Standing on the steps of Downing Street after winning the 2019 election, Boris Johnson directly addressed the country: “If you ask yourselves what is this new government going to do, what is he going to do with his extraordinary majority, I will tell you… we are going to unite and level up.”
It was less than a year ago that he made his victory speech, but it feels like a lifetime.
“Levelling up” was the driving aim behind Boris Johnson‘s premiership – but, after the economic battering of coronavirus – is it still achievable?
On this week’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, we visited Sheffield to investigate.
There’s clearly a huge economic potential across the north of England, exemplified by Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre which is helping put Britain at the front in the competitive market of precision engineering.
The company exports across the world through Rolls Royce and Siemens, and has hired six additional people since the first lockdown in March.
But – with national debt now standing at a higher level than the entire UK GDP, and the additional pressures of Brexit looming by the end of the year – will the green business shoots in the north continue to grow?
Chancellor Rishi Sunak this week unveiled a £4bn levelling up fund in his spending review, to support towns and cities outside London and the South East.
But while Advanced Manufacturing’s managing director Gareth Morgan says he’s “enthused and excited” that levelling up is on the political agenda, he admits “it’s probably not enough” money to make a significant difference.
Perhaps even more importantly – for many the levelling up agenda is not just about the amount of money, it’s about decentralising power from Westminster, with decisions about investments and funding happening locally rather than through central government.
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Henri Murison, of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “If you still have power centralised in Whitehall, your levelling up fund is a beauty pageant, projects for parts of the north and Midlands… to parade in front of officials – that’s not really trusting people.
“The problem is even if you’re more generous financially – if you don’t trust people, you don’t give them real power and then I don’t think that really does begin to close the divide between north and south.”
The Conservative MPs who turned Labour’s “Red Wall” blue at the last election will also be keen that the PM sticks to his promise to level up.
Jake Berry – the Conservative MP and former Northern Powerhouse minister – has set up the 50-strong Northern Research Group of Tory MPs in the north of England, Wales and the Scottish borders to call on the prime minister to tackle the north-south divide.
Nick Fletcher – the first-ever Conservative MP for Don Valley – told me that levelling up “can take many forms”.
“People desperately need to feel as though the government cares about the people in the north. I think they feel as though they’ve been left behind for such a long time and everything happens in the south, or at least that’s how they feel and there’s definitely a certain amount of truth in that,” he said.
Back in December, the breezy promise to level up seemed easy. Now, with the economy crippled by COVID, debt soaring and many of the towns the prime minister promised to help hamstrung under Tier 3 restrictions, the task ahead is far trickier. It is far from clear whether the end result will be a levelling up or a levelling down.
In his speech on the steps of Downing Street, the prime minister said he wanted “to speak directly to those who made it possible and to all those who voted for us, for the first time, and those whose pencils may have wavered over the ballot and who heard the voices of their parents and their grandparents whispering anxiously in their ears”.
They lent him their votes at the last election and, unless he fulfils his promise to level up the communities where they live, they may not do so again.
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