The end of levelling up? Asks Stuart Thomson, head of public affairs at law firm BDB Pitmans

Liz Truss, the new Conservative Party Leader, will no doubt consign levelling up to the dustbin of political ideas. Along with terms such as the Big Society, levelling up will soon be a distant memory. But the political need to rebalance the UK will remain.

The Johnsonian approach

The concept of levelling up was at the heart of Boris Johnson’s approach, underpinning the 2019 Conservative manifesto which stated, “this Government is committed to levelling up all parts of the United Kingdom” and forming the backdrop to his short premiership. This culminated in Michael Gove assuming the role of Secretary of State for a government department which even had levelling up in its name - the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities - and saw him become the author of what must be one of the longest White Papers in history.

The reaction to Gove’s White Paper was generally positive, but after several years of discussion it was clear that levelling up remained an opaque concept. Few could really put their finger on what it was or the type of policies it would generate.

Leading from the front

That naturally meant that it was liable to be dumped by Johnson’s replacement. If Gove, as the ‘big brain’ of the Conservative Party, could not really detail what levelling up was then there was little hope for anyone else. Accordingly, the end of Boris Johnson has signalled the death knell of levelling up and this has been reflected in the battle between Truss and Sunak.

The end of levelling up allowed Liz Truss to demonstrate that her time in office will be very different from that of Johnson.

All the candidates in the leadership race shied away from using the term at all. If it is mentioned then it used as a way of justifying their attempts to boost economic growth. It appeared fleetingly in Rishi Sunak’s launch video and was mentioned again by Jake Berry when backing Tom Tugendhat in the earlier rounds but it did not feature significantly anywhere else.

This has opened some space for Labour. Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, Lisa Nandy, has claimed that the Conservatives have abandoned the policy but that by contrast, Labour remains committed to continuing the regional inequality fight.

The role of competition

For the Conservative leadership contenders, the real battles were around tax and spend. The ‘dash for growth’ was all-consuming. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that levelling up will be replaced by competition blue in tooth and claw, especially between cities. This will be a more free market type approach to the inequality challenge which remains across the UK.

The emphasis will be less on what central government can do and instead on what communities can achieve themselves. In that sense, it marks a return to the Northern Powerhouse type model as envisaged by George Osborne. Osborne’s model enabled ‘the North’ to compete more actively on the global stage.

There is, however, a danger that a competition-based model will result in winners and losers. If, as the contenders have been suggesting, lower taxes are a priority (either immediately or in the near future) then the government may not have the means, let alone the motivation, to step in and address the potential failures.

The government has already made changes to the way in which in projects are assessed so monies are distributed across the country rather than favouring London, despite what has been claimed during the leadership contest. There is a question whether any further promised reform would reflect a more market-based approach.

An ongoing challenge

All governments try to address regional imbalances. Levelling up was merely Johnson’s attempt but other PM’s and governments have also made efforts to redress the imbalances, some more actively than others. What we do not yet know is how Liz Truss will try to deal with the challenge. Truss’s comments, quickly retracted, that she would cut the pay of civil servants outside of London was seen as actually being counter to levelling up.

As Truss became more confident of winning the leadership contest there was was speculation about Cabinet jobs. Jacob Rees-Mogg was suggested as a possible new Secretary of State for Levelling Up in her Cabinet, a move that Twitter went wild over.

There is also a clear electoral imperative for the Conservatives to consider. Johnson’s electoral coalition included making inroads into the Red Wall. The new leader will have to address how to maintain a coalition between the Red Wall and, the more traditional, Blue Wall. It is not clear whether a free market, low tax approach will do that.

While the term levelling up may be relegated along with Johnson, there is no doubt that a replacement will be needed soon for economic and electoral reasons.

Written by Stuart Thomson, head of public affairs at law firm BDB Pitmans

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