Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda will become a political football – unless he takes these three steps

It’s time for the prime minister and the wider party to show leadership by demonstrating the unity they seek to achieve

Justine Greening
Monday 16 November 2020 13:46
Charles Walker tells Boris Johnson to control his advisers and end No 10 infighting

Although the departure last week of the prime minister’s two most influential advisers was seen as a pivotal moment for Boris Johnson’s premiership, the reality is that advisers come and go. In the end, it’s ministers who take decisions and take responsibility.

Mr Johnson has rightly identified that far too much time and energy has been wasted on picking fights and pursuing combative arguments instead of bringing the country together around solutions. It’s hard finding common ground with those not always on the same political side and then building a consensus around which a common plan can be built. But from my own time in cabinet, I know that’s how you deliver long-term, meaningful change. It’s far easier for governments and political parties to pick fights, but that approach is ultimately a weak one that fails to deliver for people on the ground. If the red wall Labour seats going Tory tell us anything, it’s that delivery is all that counts in the end.  

Mr Johnson has now been prime minister for almost 18 months and has four years to go before the next general election. He must now take three steps to ensure that time is used to maximum impact.

Firstly, he must refocus on the “levelling up” agenda. Beyond the rhetoric, there has been insufficient substance of a plan and on how to deliver it. He needs to set out how he is going to level up places like Bradford or Blackpool in the north, or rural areas like Lincolnshire and parts of Cornwall. And for that to be compelling, the government should be clear what it means by “levelling up”. For many, it seems to be a question of spending more money. But investment is how a plan is financed, not the plan itself. There have been times under Labour when millions of pounds were invested in “left-behind communities” but those Tory MPs who now represent those communities and what were red wall Labour seats are there because it wasn’t enough. Delivering long-term generational change requires addressing the root causes of why change never seems to happen. “Levelling up” is a phrase I used as a cabinet minister in 2015, but to me it was about a much more fundamental shift in how our country and society works, not just about spending taxpayers’ money. “Levelling up” is about how we achieve equality of opportunity for all, irrespective of background or circumstances. Levelling up is about how we shift Britain from being a place where who you know matters more than what you know and connections count more than competence.  

Secondly, with redundancies hitting a record high, people want to know where the jobs of the future are coming from and how they can reskill to get them. It’s crucial that the net-zero agenda and levelling up go hand in hand. Whether it’s the shift to renewable energy sources, to carbon capture and storage, to switching our gas networks over from natural gas to hydrogen or “greening” our transport system, the investment transitioning us to becoming a green, net-zero country and economy will mean new careers and roles.  

The prime minister needs to be clear on how those new jobs can lift communities where opportunities count the most. Alongside a reskilling strategy, it also means setting out how our education system can ensure our young people get the knowledge and skills they need to take advantage of the new opportunities being created. The challenges on both are immense, but they can only be addressed through a clear plan, driven and led by the prime minister.

The third step Mr Johnson must take is just as crucial. He must now bring people together to work on these goals. Levelling up and achieving net zero are our national challenges and they will only be accomplished through a national effort. It’s the only way that we can successfully deliver.  

In my experience working on social mobility and the practical solutions to levelling up, there is a huge amount of goodwill across the country to see change happen. Through the Social Mobility Pledge we have a “coalition of the willing” – of business leaders and university leaders who are leading the charge, working together, already going further and faster on our common ambition of levelling up the country. Their experience already shows how the solutions and knowledge we need are already in place, ready to be harnessed more broadly. What we now need is a government that shares our coalition’s purpose of levelling up and can play its own crucial part. We need a Johnson government that can bring its policy approach across all departments to line up alongside the practical steps that businesses and universities are taking on the ground.  

It’s time for Mr Johnson to lead. He cannot allow his “levelling up” agenda to simply become a political football within the Conservative Party, kicked around by MPs in different communities demanding winners and losers. The levelling up agenda is one for our whole country, because it’s about a British system that has stopped working for millions, wherever they are.  

The prime minister must take these three steps to get back on track but the role of his wider party is to show its own leadership by demonstrating the unity it seeks to achieve.

Justine Greening is a former secretary of state for education and co-founder of the Social Mobility Pledge

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