Boris Johnson’s dreadful ‘levelling-up’ speech

July 15, 2021
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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. 


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