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Boris Johnson just got serious. It could be too late

Boris Johnson just got serious. It could be too late

by host

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LONDON — Boris Johnson just made his most serious set of promises yet — but he might not get the chance to make good on them.

The U.K. prime minister is in fightback mode after being rocked, but not quite toppled, by a scandal over parties at Downing Street amid coronavirus restrictions.

Central to the pushback — beyond promises to shake-up his backroom operation — is a grand plan to “level up” Britain, a country long riven by regional inequalities as the prosperous London and South East outpace much of the country.

Perhaps because of cunning expectations management, the plan presented Wednesday by Johnson’s lieutenant Michael Gove avoided dire predictions it would be a purely cosmetic exercise. 

But Johnson has left himself only a short window before the next election to demonstrate he can deliver on any of it. And that’s if his own party doesn’t oust him first.

The Leveling Up White Paper isn’t Johnson’s first stab at turning his “leveling up” election slogan into something meaningful. But Westminster observers saw it as a cut above previous ill-fated and atomized attempts.

Wrangling over its contents has been going on for six months, a process that raised expectations but now appears to have yielded something that really does look like an overarching strategy for regeneration in the U.K.

At its center are 12 “missions” against which the government will be legally required to track progress. Some are highly specific — boosting research and development investment by 40 percent outside of England’s South East — while some, like improving public transport, remain amorphous. Another key promise is that all parts of the country will be offered local decision-making powers equivalent to London by 2030.

Underlying all that is a rather grandiose (and very Boris Johnson) vision of a “contemporary Medici model” of what the state can do, seeking to combine innovation with cultural enrichment.

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership think tank, said there “was a lot to like” in the strategy, notably that “after a few years in the wilderness,” devolution of power away from Whitehall and Westminster now appears to be “back on the agenda.”

Will Tanner, director of center-right think tank Onward, said the plan fired “the starting gun on a regeneration revolution” offering “a practical route map” to reversing inequality between U.K. regions.

“What we’ve had so far is just short termism and pork-barreling, so missions set over a decade are to be welcomed,” said Nicola Headlam, an economist and former senior civil servant who worked with George Osborne, the former Conservative chancellor who became an enthusiast for giving power away to the regions.

Uphill struggle

Yet if the white paper puts some long-overdue flesh on the bones of Johnson’s slogan, critics were quick to pick holes.

Lisa Nandy, Gove’s Labour counterpart, characterized the 12 missions as “12 admissions of failure,” arguing that the Conservatives are now trying to mitigate the effects of hefty local government cuts made during its decade-plus in power. 

The NPP’s Murrison warned the impact of the whole exercise “will be undermined through a lack of funding,” highlighting that the North of England is, post-Brexit, already at risk of losing up to £300 million a year in regional economic development funding formerly provided by the EU.

Some question why the government’s earlier comprehensive spending review — the big set-piece Treasury event where the cash is doled out — was unveiled months before the white paper. Money from that review is now being reallocated to help with regional growth.

The British government has also been here before. Labour’s Darren Jones, chairman of the House of Commons business committee, pointed out that Gove’s plan has similarities with a now-defunct industrial strategy launched under his predecessor Theresa May.

Others saw parallels on research and development with the Tory government led by John Major in the 1990s, as well as moves championed by New Labour’s regional development agencies.

A lack of institutional memory in government has hampered long-term change. As Headlam put it, “they smash up their toys so often and wonder why nothing works.”

Eyebrows will also be raised at Johnson’s failure to get the whole Cabinet to support the plan.

It’s far from clear how, in practice, Gove’s department will be able to hold the all-powerful Treasury, led by Rishi Sunak, to account on infrastructure, or force the Home Office’s hand on anti-social crime.

One former senior civil servant claimed that “in his heart” Gove would have liked a more radical reorganization of the British state — but that ministers lack the cover to do so in the wake of the Partygate scandal.

Borrowed time

Even accepting that the pandemic delayed progress on Johnson’s promises to the voters who gifted him a handsome majority in 2019, the prime minister has now left his major domestic drive to the second half of his first (and perhaps only) term in office. He’s racing against the clock.

While most Conservative MPs — jittery after the parties scandal — liked what they saw Wednesday, they are all-too aware the clock is ticking to the next election.

One MP from the so-called Red Wall of constituencies that switched from Labour to the Tories at the last election, said he was “pretty happy” with the white paper, but “it’s now all about getting it delivered … and fast.”

By its nature, the “leveling up” plan will also take time to bear fruit. And, with energy prices set to soar and taxes about to rise, it could be overshadowed by more immediate concerns about the cost of living. 

One long-serving Tory MP described that issue as an “avalanche” about to crash down on the government — something that won’t be mitigated on the doorsteps by talk of a hifalutin Medici-style recovery.

David Cameron used to be dubbed the “essay crisis prime minister” — finding a fix at the last possible minute. There are shades of Johnson’s very own essay crisis here — he’s realized his leveling up homework is due and has hurriedly put boffin Gove on the case. 

A former government adviser said of the wide-ranging plan: “All these ambitions speak to different systems and chains of command, made ever more tricky by the fact the centralizing force [Johnson] doesn’t know the detail and just wants the ‘Gover’ to ‘fix it.’”

Several Whitehall officials pointed out that the Treasury has previously focused minds on similar issues under Osborne — but that the latest plan doesn’t appear to have captured the imagination of the current chancellor, Sunak.

In times gone by, the leveling up plan would have been Johnson’s ideal kind of announcement — Tigger-ishly optimistic, with plenty of talk about economic growth and British pride. Yet it was left to Gove, not the embattled prime minister, to make the big Commons unveiling Wednesday. And while Johnson is expected to travel to the North West Thursday to sing its praises, that’s not quite the same as launching it.

Leveling up may yet help Johnson out of his current troubles, but he’s hardly in a position to shout about it.

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