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Boris Johnson barely understands what ‘middle income earners’ are – how can he possibly close the UK’s opportunity gap?

The Brexit vote should have altered the disproportionately-privileged establishment that many Britons felt deprived of the rewards they felt they’d earned. Three years later, and our soon-to-be prime minister still doesn’t get it

Duncan Exley
Sunday 21 July 2019 11:51 BST
Boris Johnson in profile

What Boris Johnson wants to do as prime minister, he recently said, “is to level up opportunity around the country… closing the opportunity gap”.

If Johnson wants to be seen to be taking the concerns of his core supporters seriously, “levelling up opportunity” is something he urgently needs to do. One of the main characteristics of Leave voters is that they are much more likely than their Remain-backing counterparts to say that opportunities to “get on in life” have receded: they are people who “face an increasing challenge in maintaining their life-style” and feel their place in the world to be “declining and/or to be stagnant”).

Leave voters are right. Opportunities to get on in life have receded. In the 20th century, “middle Britain” experienced upward social mobility, but in the 21st we are less likely to have high-status jobs than our parents had (despite being better educated) and less likely to become homeowners.

Johnson, though, apparently thinks we have our own inadequacy to blame for this problem: as he said himself in 2013 (but hasn’t repeated during his leadership campaign) the reason that people like him have been able to attain aspirations that the rest of us have not is because we are “very far from equal in raw ability”.

Even if Johnson does want to broaden opportunities and allow more of us to pursue our aspirations, he (and his advisors) are unlikely to know how to do so. Johnson is, famously, an old Etonian, and the advisors by whom Johnson is surrounded are disproportionately drawn from backgrounds far more similar to his own than they are to those of the wider population.

Living in such a bubble creates a wildly inaccurate view of what constitutes an “ordinary” person: Johnson may genuinely think that increasing the higher rate income tax threshold (which would benefit only the highest-paid 8 per cent) would help people he calls “middle-income earners” due to his privilege-distorted perception of “the middle”.

He may also not realise that millions of families simply don’t have the funds to ride out “some short-term disruption” long enough to avoid impoverishment before the supposed “countervailing opportunities” of a no-deal Brexit can be grasped, because he's surrounded by people whose families have enough wealth to tide them over such inconveniences.

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The gulf of understanding between the privileged and the rest became all too evident during the research for my book The End of Aspiration? for which I spoke to people from a variety of backgrounds in “top jobs”, and saw how frequently those from privileged families advocated policies to “widen opportunity” that bore little or no relation to the barriers that their peers from more-ordinary backgrounds had struggled to overcome.

The Brexit vote of 2016 was a wake-up call, alerting a disproportionately-privileged establishment to the fact that middle Britain felt deprived of the rewards they felt they’d earned: people who studied to be the first in their families to go to university then found themselves stuck in non-graduate jobs; or who worked hard and still can’t reach the first rung of the housing ladder; and who felt that the establishment was ignorant of their situations and aspirations.

The Brexit vote that unseated Johnson’s former Bullingdon Club colleague as prime minister took the establishment by surprise, emerging out of its blind-spot, delivered by people it thought it understood but didn’t. The crisis that unseats Johnson, and that the rest of us will have to live through, is likely to emerge from the same blind-spot.

Duncan Exley is author of The End of Aspiration? Social mobility and our children’s fading prospects published by Policy Press

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