December 7, 2021

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Tory MPs are nervous as Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ promises begin to derail

Tory MPs are nervous as Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ promises begin to derail
The Government announcing it is spending more than £90bn on rail infrastructure would on paper count as a good news story. But this week Boris Johnson found himself slated by northern newspapers for short-changing the region and giving up on levelling up – while in the capital there were claims that the lack of investment would take public transport back to the dark days of the 1970s.

How has Downing Street made such an expensive mistake?

This problem is an example of what’s going wrong for Johnson when it comes to his domestic agenda. The Prime Minister had hoped an end to Covid restrictions would allow him to pivot back to focusing on delivering his election pledges. But his promises have been so extravagant that even £96bn can’t cover them.

On everything from high speed rail to care for the elderly to small boats in the Channel, the Government is overpromising and under-delivering. The result is the Government is spending a railway shed load of money and people still aren’t happy.

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Given Johnson plans to make his flagship domestic agenda of levelling up a key plank at the next election, nerves are growing among Tory MPs that the project is beginning to be derailed. Across government, there is unhappiness over how the change to the rail plans has been received. While the decision to axe the HS2 eastern leg to Leeds has been heavily criticised, Johnson says it is “total rubbish” to claim he has broken promises.

When it comes to the reaction in his own party, it’s a mixed bag as to who believes him. The Transport Select Committee chair, Huw Merriman, seized on the change as “selling perpetual sunlight” but delivering “moonlight” instead. Some MPs believe the shake-up of rail plans still gives them enough to sell on the doorstep – arguing that transport links within the region are more important than the ones out of it anyway.

But in some areas – such as Yorkshire – they are finding little to celebrate. Part of the reason this is so contentious is a concern that these local issues could be taken by the party’s new voters in the red wall as a sign that Johnson is watering down or even walking back his election promises. In a worrying sign for Downing Street, Jake Berry – the chair of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs – asked Johnson if he had betrayed the trust of northern voters at PMQs.
Since entering Downing Street with a majority of 80, Johnson has struggled to get his levelling up agenda off the ground. It has proved hard to define.

People pass a large scale billboard advertising poster as work continues at the construction site for the HS2 mainline station at Curzon Street on 14th July 2021 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. The Curzon Street Masterplan covers a 141 hectare area of regeneration, focussed on HS2 Curzon Street station in Birmingham city centre, combined with approximately 700 million in investment into the surrounding area including new homes and commercial developments. High Speed 2 is a partly planned high speed railway in the United Kingdom with its first phase in the early stages of construction, the second phase is yet to receive full approval and the third is subject to merging with Northern Powerhouse Rail, a separate project. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)
A large scale billboard as work continued for the HS2 mainline station at Curzon Street in July 2021 in Birmingham (Photo: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

This was shown in the cabinet reshuffle when Michael Gove – a respected minister with experience in a wide range of departments – was moved to Communities Secretary and the department had “levelling up” inserted into its title.

When Gove addressed cabinet ministers last week at a levelling up away day, he presented some early ideas for his vision to colleagues. This was based around a handwritten diagram (notably different to the usual graphs) which listed the various things Gove believes ought to be part of the agenda. It was wide-ranging – from beautiful housing to pride in universities. But even optimistic ministers think that Gove’s desire to turn neglected northern towns into modern-day versions of 15th-century Florence is, perhaps, too ambitious.

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But while there are plenty of opportunities and places to improve things in the future, ultimately ministers know they need some specific things to show by the time of the next election – particularly given that the opposition parties will point to things like the change to the transport plans as reason not to trust Johnson’s word.

The problem, though, is that levelling up is a long-term project. Infrastructure projects take a notoriously long time to deliver, the benefits of improving skills won’t be seen before the next election and narrowing the gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest parts of the country is a generational challenge.

Johnson is also constrained by the fact the Chancellor is increasingly emboldened on spending limits. After a high-spend Budget, Rishi Sunak is determined to focus any future savings or extra funds on cutting taxes. When he addressed MPs after the Budget, he spoke of every extra marginal pound going towards cutting tax rather than new spending.

LEAMINGTON SPA, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26: An aerial view of the HS2 line cut straight through the South Cubbington Wood looking south towards the Long Itchington Wood Tunnel site on October 26,2021 in Leamington Spa, England. (Photo by Chris Gorman/Getty Images)
An aerial view of the HS2 line in South Cubbington Wood looking south towards the Long Itchington Wood Tunnel in Leamington Spa (Photo: Chris Gorman/ Getty Images)

He repeated this pledge on the levelling-up away day – speaking of his desire to cut taxes. Given that Johnson’s natural instinct is to spend – and he believes investment in public services is key to his pitch at the next election, there could be clashes to come.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that despite his willingness to spend, so far he is receiving little credit for it. To change this, Johnson needs to spend more time working out what will be the most effective way to use funds and less time making promises that anyone would struggle to deliver.


The PM is overpromising and under-delivering – and Tories are getting the jitters about the impact come the election