It’s ironic, to put it mildly, that the privately-educated Mr Gove – a former Rupert Murdoch employee, who once headed Policy Exchange, viewed as the most influential think-tank on the right, and now lives in a luxurious apartment down the road from Buckingham Palace – should now be entrusted by his Old Etonian boss Boris Johnson with “levelling up” the country.
I don’t know when Johnson last visited the North of England – I imagine he will scarcely dare to set foot outside Downing Street before the local elections in May – but, travelling around the country, I can tell him that on the ground, voters despair of him.
As the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation disclosed last year, almost a quarter of people in Yorkshire and a third of the region’s children are living in poverty and this dire situation will, I regret to say, worsen significantly as the full economic effects of the pandemic and Brexit hit hard over the next few months. Johnson’s dishonesty over Partygate is paralysing the machinery of government at a time when the cost-of-living crisis means those on the lowest incomes are facing the painful choice of heating or eating.
Gove’s long-awaited White Paper on “levelling up” says all the right things, but the rhetoric and soundbites are not backed up by any real detail of how these ambitions will be executed or funded. In the rush to please all sides of the Conservative Party, there is no prioritisation, and some ambitions are frankly insulting.
It’s the money that has been wasted which is most obscene: on Covid contracts, bloated consultancy fees, where £1m a day was being paid to some 1,200 consultants, poorly handled Covid schemes that has led to £4.3bn of frauds being written off. Absurd grandiose projects such as the now abandoned Scotland to Ireland bridge, this is a government with a track record of helping the greedy and not the needy.
Johnson, as his wife Carrie once screamed at him during a row in her flat before their marriage, has “no care for money”. At least £4.3bn of taxpayers’ money was shamefully written off by the Government in Covid bounce-back loans made to dodgy businesses that anyone could see were never going to be paid back; all handled by banks who should have known better.
An appalling £8.7bn was spent on faulty, unusable or overcharged PPE, more or less equal to the £12bn that the Chancellor Rishi Sunak plans to raise with his controversial National Insurance hike. When this government wastes money, it invariably wastes it spectacularly.
The test and trace programme amounted to a masterclass in government incompetence. Nick Macpherson, who used to be the most senior civil servant at the Treasury, branded it the “most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”.
The All-Party Public Accounts Committee said that, for all the colossal amounts of taxpayers’ money the Government spent on test and trace, it could not point to “a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic”. The promise on which the £37bn scheme was set up – that it would prevent the need for another lockdown – has been broken twice. Among other failures, it has never met its target to turn around all face-to-face tests within 24 hours and many of its contact tracers spent last year sitting idle even as the virus raged out of control.
Let’s put that £37bn in perspective: it’s more than the annual sum that we spend on primary and pre-primary education. It is three times the cost of the high-performing vaccination programme. It is more than £1,000 for each working-age adult in the UK. That would, as one newspaper had pointed out, finance the refurbishments of the Downing Street flat at least 20,000 times over. No wonder Dido Harding, the Tory peer in charge of test and trace, has now disappeared from public life.
Money may have been no object for Johnson during his life, but it’s seldom been his money and it’s very much our money he’s squandering now. Tax money that is finite: public sector net borrowing that now stands at around 97 per cent of UK GDP, the highest since the early 1960s.
No one in the North of England should expect their lives to be in any realistic way “levelled up.” If there is no money available for levelling up, it’s because the money has already been given away or wasted. Cleaning up politics must also include cleaning up the way our elected representatives spend our money.