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LONDON — It was a totemic pledge to a left-behind nation; a promise to invest in the most neglected parts of provincial England.
But “leveling up,” the flagship regeneration policy that was meant to form the central theme of Boris Johnson’s expected decade-long premiership, now risks petering out with a whimper as he departs the stage after just three years.
“It does depressingly feel like it’s being quietly ditched,” said an official in the Department for Leveling Up, the renamed ministry tasked with delivering Johnson’s pledge to boost economic growth in the regions.
Chief among officials’ concerns are the departure not just of Johnson, but of his former Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove, the dynamic senior minister sacked earlier this month in Johnson’s final act of political revenge.
Just as importantly, none of the candidates vying to replace Johnson in No. 10 have placed rebalancing the U.K.’s notoriously London-centric economy high among their priorities. Instead, more totemic right-wing issues such as tax cuts, defense spending and culture wars have dominated a bitterly fought debate.
“All this talk of tax cuts doesn’t speak to the reality of the U.K.’s productivity challenges,” argued Henri Murrison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership think tank, which lobbies for more funding for the north of England. “No one’s talked about the [leveling up] white paper, and the importance of committing to those missions.”
Shadow Leveling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy put it more starkly in a speech Monday: “The ugly truth … is on full display as leadership contenders vie for the mantle of Margaret Thatcher, promising tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, and more managed decline across Britain.”
The project has had something of a chequered history so far.
When Johnson won his landslide election victory in 2019 — scooping dozens of parliamentary seats in struggling “red wall” areas that voted Conservative for the first time — he interpreted it as an instruction to “level up” the country by addressing the U.K.’s entrenched regional inequalities.
He would, the theory went, reward voters who had placed their faith in the Conservatives by tackling the lack of opportunities in their local areas.
As the months passed, however, “leveling up” was criticized as a meaningless slogan lacking real policy heft. Some saw it as cover for U.S.-style “pork-barrel politics,” with regeneration funds openly channeled into Tory-voting areas to keep the party’s new supporters on side.
But Johnson signaled a determination to inject momentum and brainpower into the endeavor by creating the Department for Leveling Up last year, and placing Gove — one of his most effective Cabinet ministers — at its helm.
Gove drafted and published a policy blueprint for leveling up, setting out 12 “missions” against which the government would be legally required to track progress over the next decade. Some are highly specific — boosting research and development investment by 40 percent outside of England’s southeast — while others, like improving public transport, are more amorphous.
But significantly, he was unable to prise extra funds for the project from then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak — who is now the front-runner to take over No. 10.
With Johnson soon to depart the scene and Gove already out of the picture, “leveling up” faces an uncertain future at best.
The issue has not been entirely absent from the Tory leadership campaign, with all the hopefuls signing up to a pledge to deliver crucial rail infrastructure for the north.
Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt has called for more local development corporations, while Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is advocating low-tax zones to encourage investment in deprived areas.
And observers believe the realpolitik awaiting Johnson’s successor means they will not be able to easily consign “leveling up” to the history books. If the party wants to hang on to the seats it won for the first time in 2019, the argument goes, it cannot leave its newest supporters out in the cold.
“’Leveling Up’ was always a rubbish slogan,” tweeted Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings this week. “But defined right, lots of the policy agenda should continue.”
Mike Crowhurst, leveling up director at PublicFirst — a political consultancy whose strategists helped write the 2019 Tory manifesto — predicted each candidate would have to spell out how they plan to build a voter coalition that can win the next general election. “I can’t see how you can do that without including the sorts of places that ‘leveling up’ is focused on,” he said.
The political pressure from parts of the Conservative Party will be significant. One “red wall” MP backing Sunak vowed that he and other colleagues would hold the new leader’s feet to the fire, whoever comes out on top. “We still have to demonstrate to the people who gave us their vote last time that it was worth it,” they said.
Those hoping the policy survives Johnson’s departure point out that each of the remaining leadership candidates has at least some personal stake in the “leveling up” project.
Sunak’s allies point to his close association with initiatives such as freeports, a newly created Treasury department in the Northern town of Darlington, the U.K. infrastructure bank in Leeds; and the £4.8 billion Leveling Up Fund, which invests in local areas across England. Sunak also visited Teesside in the northeast at the weekend and secured the symbolically important backing of Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen.
Truss, while hardly evangelical about large-scale public spending, is seen by MPs as the most loyal of the candidates to Johnson, and therefore more likely — some hope — than most to want to safeguard his legacy.
Kemi Badenoch is a former communities minister with close ties to Michael Gove, and has spoken about the need to give coastal and rural communities a bigger voice in the project.
And Penny Mordaunt’s most distinctive policy offer — admittedly a low bar, thus far — has been a “social capital funding pot” to be handed out by MPs to areas in need.
But the fact that “leveling up” has barely been mentioned in the campaign has not gone unnoticed in Whitehall — and privately, the custodians of Johnson’s pledges are worried.
An MP who worked closely with the Treasury said of Sunak that “left to his own devices, I’ve no idea what he’d prioritize.”
“I don’t think Rishi would ever have committed a bunch of funding to it if it wasn’t for Johnson,” added the official from the Department for Leveling Up, quoted at the top of the story. “Gove was always going to be a high-water mark [for the project] — the dropoff will now be massive.”
“Whatever you think of [Johnson], he put it front and center,” said a senior Conservative MP. “Now the others will have to make up their mind about how hardcore they go on this.”
The indications so far suggest that any post-Johnson vision of “leveling up” will be one which costs the Treasury significantly less in funds.
“’Leveling up’ was originally about trying to spend more money on places that had been left behind,” said Crowhurst. “But the leadership candidates are talking more about how you can increase private investment, devolve power, and boost social capital and social infrastructure.”
“All the rhetoric seems to be about tax cuts to put money in people’s pockets,” added the previously quoted Whitehall official. “It won’t work. You need long term public and private investment in these places.”
Strikingly, there has been comparatively little discussion about where the candidates would direct public spending, and whether they might rewrite fiscal rules to allow more investment in “left-behind” areas.
This uncomfortable silence is to some extent a function of the contest — with all candidates currently trying to appeal purely to the Tory MPs and right-wing party members who will pick the eventual winner — but may prove unsustainable as public services come under increasing strain this winter.
Local government funding is being badly impacted by rampant inflation, as are household budgets in precisely the parts of the country that Johnson vowed to help.
“You’re going to have to find some money on the spending side of the equation, as well as the tax cut side of the equation,” warned one former Treasury adviser. “Or it’s not going to f**king wash.”