There were some significant appointments that might help the PM – notably Nadhim Zahawi becoming Education Secretary and Middlesbrough MP Simon Clarke, a former Local Government Minister, becoming Treasury chief secretary as his near neighbour Rishi Sunak finalises a critical spending review at the end of next month.
Much will also depend on the calibre, and expertise, of middle-ranking ministers – and I’m still to be convinced that Michael Gove can give levelling up sufficient leadership, attention and clarity of purpose when his wide-ranging communities remit also includes housing, planning, councils and the future of the Union.
And this was epitomised by the Westminster Hall debate and the inadequacy of the response of Kemi Badenoch, the-then Exchequer Secretary, to a very thoughtful speech by Sheffield City Region metro mayor Dan Jarvis on what levelling up should mean.
She took absolutely no notice of the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy which described levelling-up policy and funding as “lacking in any overall coherent strategic purpose” with little clarity about who is responsible, how progress will be measured or, indeed, what the objectives are. Damning criticism.
Badenoch, however, rejected all this and concerns about funding disparities that have seen the Chancellor’s Richmond’s constituency given preferential treatment over towns like Barnsley where Jarvis is MP.
“There were lots of accusations about the levelling-up fund being pork barrel politics for Conservative constituencies. I utterly reject that. It is absolutely untrue,” she said.
“It is also untrue nonsense that the Chief Whip is deciding which MPs will get funding. Those are just nonsensical media speculations. We, on this side of the House, know that we are doing right for the people of this country.
“For those who are unsure, the Levelling Up Fund is intended to invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life across the UK. We recognise that it does not always go to the most deprived places. It is a formula that takes many things into account, and it will prioritise those bids... from places in highest need.”
If that is the case, and the PM is serious about levelling up as the finishing touches are made to the Spending Review, can he list his key priorities so monthly updates can be provided to Parliament on progress and the allocation of funds? If not, why not?
After all, there was one final twist to these exchanges and their significance. Within hours, the obfuscating Kemi Badenoch was given a new job – as Levelling Up Minister.
I’M told Gavin Williamson was surprised to be sacked as Education Secretary – because he didn’t know he held the job in the first place.
In normal circumstances, I would have dismissed it as an apocryphal story but we’re talking about Scarborough-born Williamson here.
As such, it is timely that Nadhim Zahawi, the former Vaccines Minister, is in charge of the DfE – his expertise should help make it easier to keep schools open and he’s renowned for pulling rank and phoning up the PM if he feels progress is slack.
I do hope, however, that he spends time away from Whitehall carrying out incognito school visits – he’ll learn far more that way – before rushing into policy pronouncements.
As for Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary who grew up in Leeds, let’s just hope her diplomacy is better than her record, and response, as Environment Secretary during the Yorkshire floods of December 2015. Many victims remain surprised that she’s enjoyed such a meteoric rise in subsequent years.
WHAT a delight to spend Sunday morning listening to Lauren Laverne interview cricketing hero Michael Holding on Desert Island Discs – she’s a presenter in the very best traditions of this iconic Radio 4 programme.
My only regret is that 45 minutes did not do justice to Holding’s extraordinary story, his eight choices of music and choice of book which was Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.
It was also timely because Covid – and the abandonment of the final Test between England and India – means that the West Indian fast bowler has now completed his final broadcast on Sky Sports.
He may have wanted to leave without fanfare – but his impartiality, insight and integrity set new standards when it comes to sports punditry. It’s also why he was so respected when he spoke out over racial injustice – and long may he continue do so.
TALKING of sport, Channel 4’s enlightened decision to secure broadcast rights for Emma Raducanu’s historic win in the US Open was even more inspired because of the expert commentary of tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
Her plain-speaking, a legacy of her upbringing in Czechoslovakia, and her own record gave added credence to the view that Raducanu is poised to become a sporting superstar like no other.
Let’s hope the Lawn Tennis Association seize this opportunity to improve the provision, and standard, of local courts for future players. The demand is there – it was a joy to see youngsters near where I live playing tennis in the street on Sunday morning rather than kicking a football.
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