Is ‘levelling up’ actually going to amount to anything? It’s been well over a year since Boris Johnson talked about it on the steps of Downing Street following his election victory, but of course quite a lot has happened in the intervening few months. It would be perfectly easy for this agenda to end up like David Cameron’s Big Society: with noble aims, a catchy (if also meaningless) tag line – and not much to show for it at the end.
It’s fair to say that many MPs feared this too, which is one of the reasons the Northern Research Group was set up, in order to keep up pressure on the Prime Minister to stick to the commitments he made. Another reason is that lines of communication between the Tory backbenches and No. 10 have not been as strong as they should, both as a result of his PPSs failing to make the inroads they should have done with new MPs in particular during the pandemic, and because of weaknesses in the party’s whipping operation. MPs representing Northern seats concluded that a broadcast operation would be more effective than waiting for the PM to pay attention behind the scenes.
In recent weeks, this noisy lobbying appears to have paid off. The Budget contained a £4.8 billion Levelling Up fund, and last week’s bus strategy delighted those representing seats where most journeys are made by road rather than rail. It showed a recognition that public transport outside London is more precarious than many politicians who are based in the centre often realise.
There’s an interesting division in the levelling-up MPs over whether the £4.8 billion fund is as much of a coup as some MPs have claimed publicly. Of course, they’ll all make a noise about it in their local media, but the recently-elected MPs are delighted, while older hands are more sceptical, pointing out that the money is considerably less than the EU funding their areas used to receive, that it is dwarfed by the amount of money that Greater Manchester alone attracts, and that it is meaningless without a well-oiled government machine to administer it. One MP says: ‘It’s piss in a very large ocean, quite frankly.’
There are now calls from these MPs for the government to learn the lessons of the successful vaccination programme and to throw its resources at levelling up in the same way. If this sounds a bit far-fetched, there are also more modest demands for a minister who is the point person for levelling up in government, given it spans so many different departments. This could either be the Cabinet Office Minister or some MPs are suggesting that a new chief whip, potentially Gavin Williamson once he has been moved from the education department, would do very well at overseeing the programme.
Of course, giving this brief to a whip, who is in charge of party management, not policy, would be the perfect evidence for critics in other parties who claim that levelling up is merely giving newly blue seats rewards for going Tory and to keep them as Conservative voters at the next election. It may be that the Tories don’t find this charge that embarrassing, though.