At a recent cabinet meeting, ministers were amused to find themselves sitting through a presentation on “achievements for 2020”. The chief secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay, read out a list of things the government had done well – which presumably meant he didn’t need to speak for very long at all. “It was, like, oh God, why are we doing this?” one secretary of state moaned afterwards.
At least now Barclay can add “post-Brexit trade deal” to his list. It is an achievement in itself that the government was finally able, after weeks of missing allegedly hard deadlines, to announce anything at all as the sun set on Christmas Eve.
Britain’s departure from the European Union and Covid-19 have naturally dominated discussions among Boris Johnson’s top team for most of this year. The latter isn’t going to stop being a standing item on the agenda for many months to come – but with a vaccine programme now under way, it does look as though ministers can start planning for life after the pandemic, and perhaps even a list of achievements that’s worth listening to.
Brexit is also supposed to make it much easier for the prime minister to achieve his ambition of “levelling up” the UK. When he took over from Theresa May, Johnson stood in Downing Street and promised that his government would answer “at last the plea of the forgotten people and the left-behind towns by physically and literally renewing the ties that bind us together so that with safer streets and better education and fantastic new road and rail infrastructure and full-fibre broadband, we level up across Britain with higher wages, and a higher living wage, and higher productivity”. He reiterated that pledge after winning the 2019 general election, making it clear that he would reward newly Conservative voters in the “red wall” seats of Labour’s former northern and Midland heartlands: “We are going to unite and level up. Unite and level up.”
The first thing ministers should do with their newly free bandwidth after the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations is to work out what “levelling up” really means. They all have slightly different definitions, which suggests that if Johnson knows what it means, he hasn’t shared it with his senior ministers. Levelling up is in danger of becoming the sort of nebulous political catchphrase like the “big society” that David Cameron waffled on about. “It is an utterly meaningless, meaningful-sounding phrase,” complains one senior backbencher. “Who is in charge of ‘levelling up’ in this government? It’s not a thing.”
It is true that levelling up has not featured highly in cabinet discussions this year, even once Covid and the EU have been dealt with. “You move on to things like our nature strategy or climate change,” explains one regular. “And we all think, why on earth have we got that?” But there is work going on elsewhere in government to make sure that 2021 is the year when levelling up becomes common political parlance.
Most Conservative MPs say they can’t disagree with the idea of rebalancing the north and south. But what this means in practice is still contentious. Some northern MPs fear that the narrative from their colleagues in government has been a bit patronising and even derogatory about the need to level up, which they feel suggests Westminster politicians have the sort of stereotypical view of the north as a uniformly bleak place. Others are suspicious that the way the government has had to respond to Covid by throwing vast sums of money at everything will then bleed into its general approach to policy.
It will certainly be much more difficult to argue that it’s not all about extra cash when so much was spent on the “eat out to help out” scheme, for instance. This is something the Treasury is painfully aware of: the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has been trying for months to stem the flow of spending, but will find himself under even more pressure once the focus moves on from preventing economic disaster and on to rebuilding the country.
Different parts of government also disagree on key issues such as housing and planning. The Treasury is more interested in planning reform, seeing it as the main barrier to the rapid expansion of housing, while Downing Street sees housing as a key means of levelling up. This conflict could mean that neither area gets the focus it deserves.
The two departments that have been the most proactive on levelling up are the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The former rewrote the Green Book, the rule book determining decisions on government investment, so that it no longer has an inherent bias towards southern projects. Sunak also announced a £4bn levelling up fund in the spending review, which will give pots of up to £20m for areas to improve roads, town centres, public transport and so on. MPs in northern seats were delighted at this: they had been campaigning vociferously for money to end the north-south divide.
BIS is also working on a number of projects that could be classed as levelling up; insiders say everything they do is through the lens of rebalancing the country. The “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution” announced in November is one example, with a focus on creating 250,000 “green jobs” in former industrial heartlands in the north of England, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales. But even those working closely in these areas feel things aren’t moving as fast as they should be.
At least those things are moving at all – and in the right direction. The same cannot be said of education. Talk to any “red wall” MP and they will say that one of the biggest problems they see is that the children in their constituency are taught to have smaller horizons than others. Young people growing up in struggling towns are still told by their teachers or parents that people from their area don’t go to top universities, or into certain well-paid jobs. One north-west MP explains: “We need to attract better teachers from elsewhere because when you just take from the pool of people in the local areas, it’s no surprise that the aspiration level is the same.”
But the pandemic has made creating equality of opportunity through education much harder, with already disadvantaged children set back so much more by their inability to access or benefit from remote learning over the past year. Ministers try to blame individual schools, but central government has hardly helped, failing to deliver the laptops that were promised to help with remote learning. More recently, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, U-turned on cutting the funding for laptops and other technology. And it’s not yet clear whether schools will be able to reopen properly in January any way.
Ministers can’t afford to delay much longer before starting real work on levelling up. Whether that means creating new infrastructure and housing in left-behind towns, or improving the aspirations of the children living there, it will take even longer than the absurdly lengthy Brexit talks. And the Tories are acutely aware that if they do not have anything to show off to “red wall” voters by the next election, then they can’t be confident that they will keep those seats.
Perhaps, though, the first stage of the levelling up programme needs to involve ministers being honest that they won’t have achieved much by 2024. One former cabinet minister argues that the Tories need to make clear that this is a 10-year plan. “If you look at how the Blair government improved those great northern cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, it took them more than six or eight years to do so. We need to start the levelling up programme right now and make clear that it is going to take that long, and so voters need to stick with us if they’re going to get what they want in their towns.”
But voters won’t feel there is anything to stick around for unless there is evidence that the government really has a programme of levelling up that goes beyond the sort of meaningless soundbites that every Tory prime minister in the past decade has adopted. Cameron’s big society was followed by Theresa May’s “burning injustices”, and both former leaders would still struggle to tell you what those slogans achieved. If Johnson isn’t careful, the only list that voters will remember is not the one of his alleged 2020 achievements but the ever-growing one of unrealised Tory ambitions.
• Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator and presenter of Radio 4’s Week in Westminster