News & Insights  |  Posted January 14, 2022

Red Wall turns up the heat on levelling-up

“I wish I could say this is a joke; it is not a joke”. Those were the words of BBC Today presenter Nick Robinson reporting that Michael Gove — the Secretary of State responsible for levelling-up — was late for an interview because he was stuck in the Broadcasting House lift.

Predictably, the irony of the incident was not lost by commentators and Twitter users…but it’s probably best to leave that well alone.

On the back of further damaging revelations of Downing Street lockdown booze-ups, the lift drama was a light-hearted start to a cold January week. But levelling-up is no joke to Red Wall MPs and leaders who have been growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress made on the agenda since the Tories’ 2019 General Election victory. Indeed, over two years on from the election, to most levelling-up remains a vague, elusive concept. We are still no closer to understanding how it will work, and who will be responsible for delivering it.

The Tory Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, spoke for many across the Red Wall when he used a piece in in the Times’ Red Box to accuse ministers of putting Westminster bubble considerations over the needs of the North, warning that the Prime Minister risks losing the next election without “concrete” progress on levelling-up by 2024. The intervention came just weeks after the government confirmed that the publication of the Levelling-up White Paper — originally promised before the end of 2021 — would be delayed until later in January.

As a prominent Red Wall Tory and one of the strongest advocates for levelling-up, Houchen is someone the Government need to keep on their side; it is telling that Tees Valley was the first place Michael Gove visited after being handed the levelling-up brief in the September reshuffle. This very critical public intervention has heaped pressure on Gove and Boris Johnson as they prepare to fire the starting gun on their flagship 2019 manifesto commitment.

The White Paper must bring levelling-up back under the Government’s control

While few others will be feeling the pressure to see progress on levelling-up than the PM and Gove, the pair will be acutely aware of the challenges ahead of them when it comes to delivering the policy.

The task of getting MPs across the House, regional politicians, businesses and the public united behind a single vision of levelling-up was always going to be difficult. This has been made infinitely more complex by the government’s failure to properly define levelling-up since including it in the 2019 manifesto. Levelling-up has ballooned into a catch-all term; a policy that means all things to all people. The White Paper will need to be clear on a specific direction for levelling-up and bring the policy back under the government’s control, and this could leave many interests disappointed with what is taken forward.

They will also need to make sure any commitments in the White Paper are properly funded. There has been plenty of speculation, but we don’t yet know for certain any specific actions or commitments that will be made. That said, after a period of record public spending, the money needed to reduce inequalities across the country isn’t likely to be found behind the Downing Street sofa. Securing the financial support of business and the private sector will be critical, but they must also bring Chancellor Rishi Sunak on side, and The Times has reported that he is playing hardball on public funding for levelling-up.

The stakes are also high for the two men on an individual level. Given the recent turmoil in the government, the PM might view making progress on levelling-up a way to convince his party that he should fight the next General Election. Gove — well-known for being someone who gets things done in Whitehall — will want to be seen as owning the agenda, given this is possibly his best chance of rivalling Liz Truss or Sunak for the leadership should Johnson either resign or be forced out.

Putting individual considerations aside, politicians, businesses and residents across the Red Wall will be expecting as a minimum a detailed plan for delivery — a blueprint for levelling-up with timelines and clear allocation of responsibilities. Anything less will be met with huge disappointment and anger and could seriously undermine the government’s efforts to make serious progress on their main 2019 manifesto commitment ahead of the next General Election.

The Guardiola of politics?

On LBC, Gove described Johnson, the “Pep Guardiola” of politics and said he will deliver levelling-up. The flattering comparison — which Gove has also used in the past — has always felt a little dubious. Yes, both men are successful and at the top of their respective fields and the Manchester City manager, like Johnson is well-known to enjoy a glass of wine — perhaps even in his garden — but this is probably where the comparisons end for now. One thing is certain: Johnson will have to find a way through the challenges facing his levelling-up agenda if he is to replicate Guardiola in delivering success to the North West, as well as other UK regions.

Authenticity and long-termism will reap rewards

With levelling-up existing as a vague and ambiguous concept for some time, it often feels as if every sector has made claims to it and believe they hold the key to its success. As a major government policy, levelling-up will remain a crowded space after the White Paper is published and the policy develops. Firms and organisations making tenuous claims to levelling-up for short-term publicity gain will find their efforts have little impact. On the other hand, those who take the long-term approach and invest the time to understand how they can align themselves most authentically to levelling-up will be rewarded.

Andy Williams, Account Director