Will “levelling-up” survive Boris Johnson’s exit? While both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have pledged support for levelling-up, neither candidate has prioritised it in this contest. This might simply reflect the obvious reality of this election: the need to announce right-leaning policies for right-leaning voters. But it’s hard not to sense levelling-up will be gently de-prioritised regardless of who wins.
Three big reasons stand out.
Firstly, most importantly, because cost-of-living is now the dominant issue nationally. That is particularly the case amongst working-class voters in levelling-up areas. As I have written before, anger is growing at the Government’s perceived failure (unwillingness, even) to reduce costs. In this context, the new Prime Minister might conclude levelling-up has been overtaken by economic events and simply preventing working-class families drowning is all that matters; levelling-up could seem like an irrelevance or a luxury.
If anything, this might be underplaying the scale of the problem. For cost-of-living won’t be the only massive issue the new PM deals with. They will also wrestle with ongoing war in Ukraine, the prospect of serious energy shortages, more strikes, and continued backlogs in NHS care. It might be levelling-up is allowed to get washed away in the mess of Government. Only a PM truly committed to the project – obsessed about it, even – would make progress on it.
Secondly, because favourite Liz Truss is known to be much more committed to classical-liberal economics. While she has given in principle support for major new investment in rail links for the North of England (the Northern Powerhouse Rail), her levelling-up policies lean towards pure free market economics elsewhere: she has effectively indicated she’ll cut the pay of provincial civil servants by introducing regional pay boards; and her commitment to levelling-up in a recent debate came in the form of prioritising low-tax zones and better education. In short, it feels like levelling-up is more likely to derive from national policies that will “raise all boats”.
There’s certainly a prospective levelling-up strategy grounded in free-market economics (by far the best advocate of this is Ben Houchen). But this would unquestionably take levelling-up away from its current focus on improving the daily lives of people in less affluent areas through incremental but meaningful change.
To many of those working on levelling-up at the Department and in Number 10, there was a belief in using the policy to re-build high streets, reduce anti-social behaviour in town centres and on estates, help small businesses, and more. This requires Government intervention in a way that seems unlikely to follow if Truss wins. In other words, the only thing the Truss approach to levelling-up and Boris Johnson’s approach will have in common is the name.
Thirdly, because I believe Truss doesn’t have the same instinctive understanding of working-class voters as Johnson had – and indeed as those that campaigned for Leave developed. Johnson came to understand working-class voters and their values and attitudes on the campaign trail in 2016 – and his ability to move them propelled him into Downing Street with a massive majority. I confess I’m not sure about this, but Truss doesn’t seem to share this basic, fundamental understanding. She may gain this of course.
There’s an additional factor that might see levelling-up de-prioritised: so few Northern and Midlands businesses have joined in the debate. Whilst some have campaigned for more action to be taken, not enough people in government have heard that levelling-up is a priority from businesses in the areas it is designed to help. Truss might reasonably conclude that there are other areas she ought to focus on (corporation tax, “red tape”, and so on).
We will find out very quickly whether levelling-up remains a priority. If it is a priority, Truss or Sunak will re-appoint Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien to the department – or appoint two politicians of similar ability and standing (with those two hopefully given big, reforming jobs elsewhere). If it is a priority, the new PM will give a speech in the Midlands or North very early on giving their firm commitment to the project – putting their own stamp on it.
Levelling-up can only work if the Prime Minister takes it so seriously they’re prepared to see most policy areas – or at least a good number of them – through the prism of it. For example, thinking about boosting high streets when they think about economic policy, or thinking about anti-social behaviour in town centres when they think about crime, or thinking about protecting old historic buildings in our towns and cities when they think about planning. I doubt this will be the case.
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