How ‘levelling up’ has become a Ministerial sleight of hand – Tom Richmond

THERE’S a new Government strategy for the North – just keep repeating the phrase ‘‘levelling up’’ or ‘‘level up’’ repeatedly and liberally until a gullible public finally believes it.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (C), stand on board a boat on the River Tees on March 4, 2021 in Teesport, England. Teesport has been chosen as one of eight sites for new Freeports.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (C), stand on board a boat on the River Tees on March 4, 2021 in Teesport, England. Teesport has been chosen as one of eight sites for new Freeports.

This is self-evident following the Budget when the five most senior economic ministers – all male by the way – used this new verbal shorthand for bad politics to mask their policy failings.

First, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s rhetorical flourish at the end of his Budget when he listed the opportunities being delivered by his speech – one of which was to ‘‘level up’’. There was scant other mention of this.

Next, the blog by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary (and part-time Northern Powerhouse Minister). The Budget, he wrote, set out the “Government’s determination to deliver on our promises to the North and level up the UK economy”.

Boris Johnson points the finger at Labour during Rishi Sunak's Budget speech.

Then Kwasi Kwarteng, the new Business Secretary, warmed to the theme in the Commons. “What we have announced in these packages is levelling up in action,” he asserted.

Treasury chief secretary Steve Barclay – the Chancellor’s deputy – got in the act as he wound up the Budget debate and said the measures are “providing the opportunity to level up across the country”.

Finally Boris Johnson enjoyed the last word at PMQs: “We are devoted to levelling up across the entire country.”

Now there were, in fairness, Budget measures that have potential to benefit this region. Time will tell if freeport status for the Humber, and also Teesside, attracts the anticipated private investment while the National Infrastructure Bank, earmarked for Leeds, is not on the scale originally envisaged.

This was Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivering the Budget.

Equally let’s see if civil servants working for the new Treasury North in Darlington relocate here, and experience services for themselves, and whether the Towns Fund helps deprived areas or maintains existing inequalities.

But what is perturbing is the ease at which the Government has neglected its original commitments to the ‘‘Northern Powerhouse’’ and replaced them with a far more nebulous ‘‘levelling up’’ mission.

This is why pre-Budget questions to Mr Sunak – how does he define ‘‘levelling up’’, how will success be measured and who is ultimately accountable for the policy? – are as relevant now as they were 10 days ago.

And, in fairness, they also apply to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer who cannot accuse Ministers of ‘‘levelling down’’ without offering the clarity that families expect of any aspiring – and credible – party of government.

I’M beginning to get neck ache keeping up with all of Labour’s U-turns. First, shadow ministers indicated opposition to rises in corporation tax, and freezing of personal tax allowances, in the Budget to begin to pay Britain’s Covid’s costs.

Then there was an acceptance that Labour would back Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s measures – before Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said now was not the right time (even though the implementation is being delayed) as the party voted against them.

Labour is in a hole. Go further than the Tories on tax hikes and they will be accused of being irresponsible with the economy – or oppose them and leave themselves open to the charge that they don’t grasp the UK’s indebtedness.

This has been a bad week for the Government after the proposed one per cent pay rise for NHS staff was viewed as an insult. Arguably, it’s been an even worse, however, for Sir Keir Starmer’s party once the pay issue is removed from the economic equation.

TALKING of NHS pay, there were even mixed messages on this from Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth on Radio Four’s Today programme.

Understandably, he condemned the proposed one per cent hike. He was then asked what he would do, as Health Secretary, if the recommendation was upheld by the independent pay review body. “I don’t think they will do that,” he predicted.

And, if that was the case, he said he would continue to campaign “for more than one per cent” – even if this meant going against the statutory pay body. Some would describe this as ‘having your cake and eating it’. Others would call it out as cynical opportunism.

That said, Ashworth deserved better than the Commons response he received from Care Minister Helen Whately when she questioned why he, and not a female colleague, was raising the issue on International Women’s Day.

She’s so unconvincing that it was fortunate she was not facing Rachel Reeves, a very effective Shadow Cabinet minister, who gave the Cabinet Office 
the run around over PPE contracts – 
and how taxpayers money will be recouped from the more dubious deals. Now that was proper Parliamentary opposition.

TORY peer Dido Harding has not 
spoken in the House of Lords since March 24 last year at the outset of the Covid crisis.

The publicity shy peer did, however, manage a brief media interview after a Public Accounts Committee report condemned NHS Test and Trace as a £37bn ‘‘white elephant’’ that failed to prevent the second and third lockdowns.

Former Treasury chief Lord Macpherson said this “wins the prize for the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time” while Baroness Harding said it represented a “success story”. You decide.

But why is it impossible for Baroness Harding to be subjected to answering questions from her fellow peers after the PAC report called for more regular publication of data? Or does she simply want power without accountability?

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