Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is fond of pithy slogans. It won its 2019 electoral landslide on the basis of two: a pledge to “get Brexit done”, and another to “level up” deprived regions. It fulfilled the first, as far as it went, by finally winning parliamentary support for an EU withdrawal agreement and, last December, securing a skeletal trade deal. The legislative programme in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech aimed to put flesh on the bones of the second pledge. Actually delivering it will prove far more difficult.
Pressure to do so, however, will only mount. Last Thursday’s local elections in England gave the government a boost. They also posed a challenge. Voters in former Labour-supporting “red wall” seats such as Hartlepool, and parts of the Midlands and the north where the Tories gained ground, backed Brexit and then the Johnson Conservatives because both seemed to offer the prospect of improving their lives.
The commitment to boost life-long skills and training, by extending student loans to those who want to study at further education colleges and offering government-funded training for adults without the equivalent of A-levels, may do so. Providing equality of opportunity is important both to “levelling up” and to raising competitiveness on a national basis. Giving employers a role in shaping state-funded training courses is sensible. Yet to succeed it must be backed by a commitment of sufficient funding for the loan system and for vocational and technical courses, which have suffered heavy cutbacks.
Easing the housing shortage is also a national priority. Loosening planning constraints is vital to meet the target of building 300,000 new homes a year by mid-decade. Yet this is less likely to help with levelling up — houses in red wall areas are often cheap — than to spur home-building in the wealthy south-east, where it is most lucrative. That may help the government in areas where what might otherwise be Conservative voters are priced out of the market. But it might run into opposition from MPs and supporters in Tory heartlands who fear a planning free-for-all on greenfield sites.
Two other measures — creating at least eight freeports, and a new state aid regime that ministers say will enable greater “nimbleness” in supporting jobs — seem to be an effort to tie Brexit into the levelling up agenda.
Yet there are holes and inconsistencies in that programme. The fabric of life in disadvantaged areas has been further eroded in the past decade by huge cuts in local authority funding, which is still being squeezed. There was no mention of the employment bill first mooted by Theresa May’s government in 2019 to improve worker protections, prompting unions to warn against “levelling down” on jobs. More broadly, the lack of detail or a timetable on social care reform was a glaring omission, especially if the government cares about shoring up its base.
While some proposals have merit, this was a list of measures with little ideological coherence. After distancing itself from the Thatcherite past, the government seems unsure whether it prefers an activist state, as in the state aid plan, or the laissez-faire ethos of the freeport. It has ideas on levelling up, but no sweeping vision.
It is hard to see, moreover, how any of the measures can produce meaningful results before the next election. With the Labour party in turmoil, that may not be such a big problem politically. But Johnson’s government cannot rely on slogans forever. Unless it starts to deliver, over time, the ardour of Tory converts will turn to disillusionment.