What is “leveling up”? Anything you want it to be, Boris Johnson suggested Thursday.
Challenged to set out his flagship policy plan aimed at improving the plight of left-behind parts of the U.K., the prime minister name-checked everything from increasing school funding and tackling junk food to investment in bike lanes and removing chewing gum from the streets.
One of the Conservatives’ key election-winning slogans, Johnson has been repeatedly challenged to fill out the “leveling up” agenda.
But by the end of a heavily-trailed address Thursday morning, even Johnson himself appeared to concede the speech was light on detail, telling reporters it contained “at least the skeleton of what to do.”
Johnson, a former journalist known for his colorful (and sometimes deeply controversial) turns of phrase, reached for the metaphors. Leveling up, he said, will be the “yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough … the magic sauce … the ketchup of catch-up.”
Few policy portfolios went unmentioned, and key areas of the agenda No.10 has already announced on transport connectivity and funding for towns were also re-emphasised.
In perhaps the most politically significant portion of the speech, delivered in the West Midlands, Johnson sought to reassure jittery members of his own Conservative party that “leveling up” parts of the U.K. that just recently made the switch to voting Tory won’t come at their expense.
It’s a worry compounded by the party’s recent by-election loss in the formerly safe southern seat of Chesham and Amersham.
“We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies. We don’t think you can make the poorer parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer,” the prime minister said. “Leveling up is not a jam-spreading operation, it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul … it’s win-win.”
Johnson’s speech was also big on highlighting the problems Britain’s uneven economy already faces. He spoke in praise of Germany’s reunification, arguing that German leaders over the past few decades had “succeeded in leveling up where we have not.” It was, he said, an “astonishing fact” that a few regions of the U.K. now have a lower per capita GDP than what was then East Germany.
‘Re-write the rulebook’
One area where new policy did emerge Thursday was on the devolution of power, where Johnson promised to “re-write the rulebook” to help local leaders get more powers and resources from Whitehall.
He raised the possibility of new, directly-elected mayors for individual counties, and asked any local leaders listening to get in touch with plans to improve their area in exchange for the “tools to change your area for the better.” A white paper with more detail is expected later this year.
The reaction to Johnson’s speech among Westminster’s policy experts was mixed.
Will Tanner, director of the Onward think and a former adviser to Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, said the speech had been an “important staging post,” in which Johnson had identified the “shameful differences in social and economic opportunity” between different parts of the U.K.
Tanner also welcomed the prime minister’s argument that boosting struggling areas of the U.K. is not “a threat but an opportunity to more prosperous parts of the country,” and said “piling money and political capital into London and the South East” can serve to drive up house prices and curb opportunity for young people.
The speech, he said, also “mattered for its recognition that one of the biggest barriers to regional opportunity is the centralization of power and control in Whitehall,” saying the pledge to “hand over power and money to towns and counties” could “help them take control of their problems and fix them themselves.”
Charlotte Alldritt — a former government aide who now directs the Centre for Progressive Policy think tank — told POLITICO she was “encouraged to see government acknowledge that leveling up must go beyond building roads and new rail links.”
“There was, however, little by way of detail on the wide-ranging components involved in raising living standards and increasing pride in communities,” she said. “Unless there is a more strategic and coherent delivery plan in place, it risks falling far short.”
That’s a view echoed by Nick Faith, founder of public affairs consultancy WPI Strategy, who said Johnson’s main message that leveling up would not “come at the expense of leveling down more prosperous places” was “important but not particularly surprising.”
The speech, he noted, “lacked any detail on policy and funding.”
“The big question that No. 10 will be mulling over is metrics,” Faith said. “Do they publish specific indicators of progress such as local crimes rates or life expectancy level? Doing so would make leveling up easier to measure but could open up a number of political attack lines for the opposition should the indicators go the wrong way.”
Some of those political opponents were already circling Thursday. Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner described the address as an “empty husk,” telling the BBC: “He has no jobs promise for young people, and he has no recovery plan for our children.”
Perhaps the most pointed barb came from Johnson’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, who left Downing Street last year and has since gone on the offensive, launching broadside after broadside at his old boss. It was, he charged on Twitter, a “crap speech” supporting a “crap slogan” which had failed to register with voters.
Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)