In the British cult comedy movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian there is a row between members of the People’s Front of Judea over “what have the Romans ever done for us?”. While the characters initially castigate the imperium, it quickly dawns on them that the Romans have done quite a few good things: such as aqueducts, sanitation, roads. The question for voters at the next election will be what Boris Johnson’s government has done for them and what Labour is going to do if it gets elected. Mr Johnson’s election promises were immodest: he was going to “level up the country” after securing Brexit. Expectations were set very high. It’s not clear that the prime minister can meet them.
“Levelling up” contains hope and grievance. The phrase suggests it’s time to stop treating poorer areas less well than richer ones. Mr Johnson claimed he would “level up” Britain and “answer the plea of the forgotten people and the left-behind towns”. He wants to tap into an egalitarian zeitgeist. In fact, he is echoing Margaret Thatcher whose 1976 Tory party said it “believe(s) in levelling up, in enhancing opportunities, not in levelling down, which dries up the springs of enterprise and endeavour … ”. This is what Mr Johnson means but cannot say because polling suggests a widespread distrust of business and capitalism.
Instead, the Conservatives cloak their true intent in the language of empowering government, tackling inequality and the devolution of power. But judge ministers by their acts, not their words. Whitehall moves jobs out to the regions but its key executive staff remain in London. The government’s school funding formula has moved funds from deprived to wealthier areas. People are losing control over the things that matter to them. Ministers want to run the English NHS. This is a terrible idea.
Mr Johnson’s plans will have little impact on regional inequality. His priority is to reward those who vote Conservative and squash those who don’t. A decade of Tory austerity has cut council budgets by £15bn, with Labour-controlled authorities hit hard. This is far more than the £9bn pledged in Downing Street-driven beauty contests that, via a levelling-up fund and a towns fund, seem to do little more than reward areas that elect Conservative MPs. It’s so rotten that Hartlepool landed £25m just weeks after it elected a Tory MP for the first time. Pledging is easier than delivering. Labour says only 5% of the money committed so far has been paid out. Corrosive pork-barrel politics has not stopped councils from going bankrupt. This is also a mechanism to bypass political opponents in the nations outside England. Cash is allocated on the basis of “needs”, but the assessment of what constitutes “need” is decided in London without consultation with the devolved governments.
Mr Johnson does not say what he means because it would be unpopular. Instead he’s relying on the fact that parliamentary checks and balances can be ignored with little consequence. Using the state machinery “to buy votes” is bad for Britain. It might also be popular while no one notices the gap between reality and rhetoric. That will be harder to sustain as policies materialise which prioritise corporations over people. No amount of spin justifies Mr Johnson’s claim that drowning mature students in debt to pay for adult education will be “rocket fuel” for the levelling-up agenda.
Covid-19 is the kind of crash that opens voters’ eyes. Mr Johnson’s planning reforms contributed to his stunning byelection loss last month. Electors rightly thought they undermined local authorities and gave too much power to private developers. Mr Johnson risks being exposed for what he is: a shameless bluffer who says what he wants to, without considering the truth. For Britain’s sake, it couldn’t happen soon enough.