by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 15
July 2021

Boris Johnson’s dreadful ‘levelling-up’ speech

Was he reading out the pages in random order?
by Peter Franklin

Boris Johnson has just delivered his big speech on levelling-up. It was awful. He’s a bumbling, stumbling speaker at the best of times — which he can turn to his advantage — but not this time. It felt like he was reading out the pages in random order. 

Adding to the impression of not knowing where he was, he claimed that the “golden triangle” of London, Oxford and Cambridge was the greatest concentration of academic excellence in “this hemisphere”. By this he meant that Britain’s top universities are second only to America’s Ivy League. However, most of the UK, including most of the golden triangle, is also in the Western Hemisphere. Look at a map, Boris!

With zero self-awareness, he began the speech by emphasising the importance of “consistency”. He claimed that previous attempts to level-up the land had failed, because government policies kept chopping and changing. 

Not much chance of that with Boris, because he doesn’t have a policy at all. Judging him on his words, “levelling-up” is still no more than a rhetorical theme — a convenient wrapper for disconnected parcels of public funding. 

As for any idea as to what the overarching strategy is, he left us none the wiser. Or, as Dominic Cummings put it, this was the “same crap speech” that “he’s given pointlessly umpteen times.”

There were formulaic mentions for particular issues both big and small — transport, “gigabit broadband”, vocational education, localism and some desperate references to football. But it’s hard to say what they added up to. 

Obviously we don’t need some technocratic absurdity like Gordon Brown’s “neo-endogenous growth theory”, but it would have been good to have a coherent philosophical framework.

The closest it got was what the Prime Minister said about not squeezing every graduate into London — and giving professionals greater opportunity to live and work in the communities where they were born. He should have developed this point. But he was distracted by another geographical matter.

Time after time, he emphasised that doing more for the North and the Midlands didn’t mean doing less for the South. “Levelling up is not a jam-spreading operation,” he said. “It’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s not zero-sum. It’s win-win.”

It’s as if he wasn’t speaking to his actual audience (gathered at a “battery industrialisation centre” in Coventry), but to a gathering of nervous Tory MPs from southern England. 

The disaster of the Chesham and Amersham by-election has clearly rattled the parliamentary party. However, it’s not levelling-up that’s turning the South against the Tories — but the government’s misconceived housing and planning policies. 

The Prime Minister is suffering from that particular form of denial that doesn’t just refuse to see an approaching calamity, but pretends the problem is something else altogether. It really isn’t. The South isn’t jealous of the North — it’s worried that the bulldozers are coming. 

Join the discussion

  • He really is an intellectual lightweight. Not that being brainy is the chief pre-requisite (Gordon Brown was a disaster, and Keir Starmer would be too, despite running rings around BJ intellectually), but an ability to get your words in the right order and show the beginnings of some kind of political philosophy wouldn’t be a bad start. In this respect he’s becoming as big an embarrassment as Trump was (even to his supporters).

  • Oh come on. I’ve no problem with Trump or his policies, the way the media went after him I thought was incredibly biased and shameful, however nobody can say he was a great orator. Most of his speeches were incoherent rambling nonsense, endlessly repetitive, and only really popular due a siege mentality amongst his most ardent supporters

  • I disagree. I am not so into social engineering – putting the houses where people do not want to be, because that is where ‘You’ want them to be, and so they go where they must.
    London has no shortage of land to develop, I am from there, I know it very well, as well as I know anywhere. Knock down 6, build back 24. Knock down 12, build back 60. If that is what people want – waking community where a car is not a necessity, in the world’s top city. Look at any world class citie’s skyline, look at Londons. London is tight, endless, sprall of 2 story high row houses. Most great cities are not like that, they are much more vertical. London can have all the housing it wants, and afford it, if that is what is wished – and it is what the people want.

    Building houses in the North is good too, if the is what people want, but only then.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up