It was a good idea at the time but, two years after Boris Johnson became prime minister, “levelling up” remains a slogan in search of a policy. He hoped it would send a “we care” signal to voters in the north and Midlands, showing he had not forgotten why they supported him in the Brexit referendum and 2019 election.
But the Conservatives’ own focus groups suggest “levelling up” is a poor, barely understood slogan. Voters in the “red wall” are confused by it. When it is explained, many view it as annoying; they rallied behind Johnson because they felt ignored rather than to see their region become as prosperous as London overnight, which they know is not credible.
“What do we do now?” was the question posed anxiously by Johnson’s close allies after his 2019 triumph. They knew what they wanted to do on Brexit but had little idea how to honour their level-up pledge. The excuse that the government has been side-tracked by the pandemic is only half the picture; Johnson’s speech on Thursday, which was being talked up only a few weeks ago as a big moment, showed he is still not sure what he wants levelling up to be. It was a mistake to make it. In an email to Tory supporters, he hailed it as a “landmark speech” but calling it “at least the skeleton of what to do” was stretching it; even skeletons have bare bones.
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