Last year a former minister confided to me that a voter responded with the immortal words when he tested Boris Johnson’s catchphrase “leveling” among his constituents: “You mean the potholes?”
So maybe it was fitting that when the prime minister tried to explain the concept, his speech was as furrowed and pitted as a Mexican ring road. Full of political holes and bumpy, meandering stretches, Johnson’s address to the confused Coventry audience was a journey without a destination.
Of course, a very simple interpretation of the level-up is the idea of spending more money outside of London. One of Dominic Cummings’ key achievements during his tenure was convincing the Treasury Department to rewrite the so-called “Green Paper Rules” to allow investment in less affluent locations.
The old idea that “investing should always follow suit” was indeed ridiculed by the Prime Minister when he promised to tackle cities in decline. But the most notable Cummings influence shown on Thursday was the pure stream of consciousness that was instituted. At 4,272 words, the speech made a Cummings blog seem so short.
In a real service to the nation, the Downing Street website published what it called a “transcript of the speech exactly as it was delivered”. It was one thing to hear it, to see it written down in black and white, confirmed its long and tortuous mode. One sentence took 210 words and felt longer than the punishment hardened criminals get for armed robbery.
The word blizzard, which hissed or lulled depending on the Prime Minister’s mood, seemed to obscure the fact that there was not a single new definition of what the governing policy of his Prime Minister’s office should be. As for cash, the only fresh money was £ 50 million, so “ultimately” (keyword 🙂 nobody will be more than 15 minutes from a soccer field.
Former # 10 Advisor Tim Montgomerie put his finger on the problem earlier this year when he revealed post-election talks about leveling up were “empty” because no one had “a soundbite that was well tested in focus groups. can transform into something real ”. When urged on Thursday, Johnson admitted that all he has so far is “the skeleton of what to do”. The bone, the bone, the dry bone, indeed.
And when Johnson has little to say, the gags are always a giveaway. A section of the speech about Heinz’s investment in Wigan appeared to be inserted solely to make a joke about “the magic sauce – the ketchup that catches up”. It was a punch line instead of a guideline, however, because the key part of leveling up turned out to be “leadership.”
And in true Johnson fashion, the ultimate test was not his own leadership, but that of local politicians. They would determine the success of his flagship idea and it was their job to really define the level-up through their actions, he suggested. Warming up old plans to give district councils “metro mayors” like in big cities was decentralization, but not as you know it.
With another setting in the culture war (“crazy left” councils wouldn’t get more powers), it felt like an olive branch to the southern Tories worrying about reform planning, with the promise of a Shire version of Andy Burnham or Sadiq Khan.
He didn’t sound like he was giving in on residential areas, but instead told the Blue Wall, “If you can’t beat them, join them”. The catch was # 10 would still hold all the cards and decide what made a deserved case.
The fundamental problem of all previous mayoral innovations has been the dependence on London for funding and the very limited ability to raise funds. This was underlined when Johnson joked that even the mayor of Tory for the West Midlands, Andy Street, could not extort “massive checks” from the Treasury Department at will.
We were promised a level-up white paper later this year, but it seemed that the prime minister wants local politicians to really do the heavy lifting. Just as he has outsourced public health policy to Covid under the mantra of “personal responsibility”, he felt he would shift the future blame for any fudge or leveling failure outside of government.
He could prove the doubter wrong with some detailed, coherent, and costly plans later this year. But if progress is slow and unmeasurable, it is likely that someone else is to blame.
And the way the Prime Minister rejected any role in conservative austerity that some believe has really crippled the regions for the past decade, the way he talked about his “outrage” that life expectancy in Hampshire was inexplicably higher than in Blackpool, suggests someone is determined to say “It wasn’t me”.