Boris Johnson promised levelling up the Red Wall for seats that voted for him in 2019. Nearly two years on from the election, let’s take a look at how he’s doing.
The Conservative party manifesto for the last election was a slim, understated affair. It contained a lot of snappy slogans – on the very first page, Johnson boomed that he would ‘get Brexit done’, ‘unleash the potential’ and ‘move our country on’ – but not much in the way of detail.
The levelling up idea first appears on page two and is subsequently repeated a further ten times in the 59 page document. But the manifesto is oddly coy about what levelling up means or how Johnson intends to do it.
Fast forward twenty months and people – Conservative people – are starting to worry. Andy Street, the new Tory mayor for the West Midlands, was at Wolverhampton College last week, imploring the Prime Minister to lay flesh on the bones of the idea:
“On the day, he did not stand up and say: ‘And this is what we’re going to do with our training budgets for colleges like this.’ He did not say: ‘This is what we’re going to do with our affordable housing budget to get more construction going.’ He didn’t. But that will all come. I’m absolutely convinced of that. Because it’s got to.”
Get Brexit done to level up
I can’t tell you exactly what was in the mind of any one individual when they voted for Boris Johnson and his party. But during the campaign, we heard the same two things over and over again. Would it be so surprising if voters conflated the two? Get Brexit done to level up.
Brexit is now done so these voters might reasonably expect that the millions we sent to the EU can now, instead, be channeled into levelling up. After all, the manifesto explicitly promised that every pound of structural EU funding would be matched by a new Shared Prosperity Fund.
Prosperity shared? Where?
That fund has yet to materialise. What has appeared instead is something called the Community Renewal Fund. This is currently offering £220 million to the whole of the UK for 2021-22, compared to the £1.1 billion of EU structural funds given to England and Wales in 2018.
Read that again. £220 million for the whole of the UK.
Figures released this week show that in 2018, the Midlands alone got £190 million from the EU. Wales got £373m and Yorkshire £143m. Now the regions are having to submit bids for a fraction of that money, pitting area against area. The fund is being administered by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. That means that the man with the ultimate power to grant or withhold the money is… drum roll… Robert Jenrick.
I can hear your heart sinking from here.
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Roll out the pork barrels
Because, as we all know, Jenrick has form. He oversaw The Towns Fund which has been consistently dogged by suggestions of pork barrel politics. He’s also in charge of the Future High Streets Fund – I can hardly wait to see what he does with that.
Jenrick is the most flagrant example in a cabinet whose one guiding idea is to channel money to its mates. But the rest of them appear similarly clueless. Last month, Boris Johnson gave his big speech in Coventry. We hoped for clarification of his levelling up vision, details of how it would be done. But all we got was an appeal to the public to send in ideas.
There is no doubt the issue is tricky. Done properly, Johnson’s flagship idea would cost a bomb. A report out this week says that it would cost nearly two trillion pounds. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, that’s what it cost the German government to rehabilitate the regions of the former East Germany. This was achieved partly by a ‘solidarity’ tax on every adult. It’s expensive, hugely expensive, but it worked.
Johnson won’t spend two trillion on levelling up. He doesn’t like spending money on anything except vast and fantastical infrastructure projects or bungs to his mates. His chancellor, Rishi Sunak, doesn’t like spending money at all.
The single biggest crisis of our time is undoubtedly climate change and the need to get to Net Zero (another manifesto promise).
In this year’s budget, the government allocated £145 million for environmental policies – that’s 250 times less than the £37 billion that has disappeared down the black hole that is our track and trace programme. Johnson will never, ever spend twenty trillion on levelling up, even if Sunak would let him.
In the end, we are left with a Prime Minister who likes to talk about levelling up but who has neither the will nor the nous to do it. What he will do instead is simply lie about his intentions and then lie about his actions. That is, after all, what he always does.
When will the Red Wall voters start to feel that it isn’t just Brexit that’s been done?
All pictures taken from the Conservative Manifesto 2019