In the operation to save Boris Johnson's premiership, the launch of a long-awaited White Paper on "levelling up" should have been a big opportunity to remind Conservative MPs of his government's purpose and his own electoral success. In the 2019 general election, Johnson promised to get Brexit done and to reduce regional inequality by making "left behind" parts of Britain more prosperous.
The prime minister’s own efforts to define levelling up have usually left its meaning more obscure but Michael Gove’s White Paper was going to put meat on its bones. The 400-page document opens with a historical survey of regional disparities, starting with the pre-eminence of Jericho 10,000 years ago.
Gove draws inspiration from the Medicis in Renaissance Florence but he has also studied the most ambitious, recent effort at levelling up – the reunification of Germany. He notes that many parts of eastern Germany still see skilled workers leaving and have a higher proportion of school leavers without a qualification than the national average.
This enduring inequality is despite the fact that an estimated €2 trillion in public funds was spend in the former East Germany between 1990 and 2014. And the most striking feature of Gove’s proposals for levelling up in Britain is that they include no new allocation of money.
"The secretary of state talks about a Medici-style renaissance, but can he not see what is happening in front of his eyes?" Labour's shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy said.
“Our high streets are struggling because the local economy is struggling. People do not have money to spend in our shops, our businesses and our high streets, and the government are about to hike up their taxes. This does nothing to address that. What we needed was a plan to connect our towns and villages to jobs, to opportunities and to our family and friends, but they have halved the funding for buses and scrapped the rail promises to the north, and where is the digital Britain we were promised?”
Gove replied with the most tired line in British politics, about Labour's Liam Byrne leaving a note for the incoming Conservative government in 2010 saying there was no money left. But it didn't matter because few at Westminster are preoccupied with levelling up or anything other than the daily bleeding away of support and authority from the prime minister who made the slogan his own.