Boris Johnson’s heavily-trailed big speech in Coventry about his vision for levelling up the country was so insubstantial that even he admitted it was no more than a “skeleton of a plan”. The prime minister has been talking about levelling up since the 2019 general election campaign but his own backbenchers confess that they still don’t know what it means.
"It means whatever anyone wants it to mean," Newbury MP Laura Farris said.
Johnson's jilted Rasputin, Dominic Cummings, tweeted after the speech that levelling up was not the product of any thought of any kind. In his blog (dominiccummings.substack.com) Cummings said it was just a "vacuous slogan" Johnson came up with because he was irritated by people calling him his chief adviser's puppet.
“He started saying ‘levelling up’. We said, ‘What does that mean, I don’t understand it?’ Burble... It’s not levelling down it’s levelling up, buses, bikes, beauty... Eh? We shoved it in focus groups. They said the same thing, ‘what does it mean, I don’t understand it’. We told him – nobody understands this, stop saying it, focus on what we know works,” Cummings wrote.
He added that “Global Britain” was an even worse slogan, blaming Johnson’s wife Carrie for whispering in his ear that he ought to trust his instincts.
“Slogans can be useful for communicating and for governing. ‘Peace, bread, land’ was a great slogan – notice how much it triggers in your mind, unlike ‘levelling up’. Bad slogans are worse than useless as they confuse everybody including your own people. Bad and vapid slogans used to try to explain to Whitehall ‘what the PM really cares about’ are the worst of all – they actively undermine the most precious resource in No10: focus,” he said.
The emptiness of Johnson’s speech in Coventry proved to be a liability as reporters’ questions ignored it, pressing the prime minister instead on a proposal for a sugar and salt tax to tackle obesity and on the rumbling row over his failure to condemn the booing of England footballers taking the knee at the start of Euro2020 matches.
The National Food Strategy, commissioned by the government and headed by Leon restaurant chain founder Henry Dimbleby, called for a tax of £3 per kilo of sugar and £6 per kilo of salt sold to food companies and restaurants. Dimbleby said it was worth paying more for a box of Frosties to reduce obesity and protect the National Health Service (NHS).
Johnson said he would study the report but made clear he would have no truck with a sugar tax, adding “I am not, I must say, attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hardworking people”.
He did not mention that the proposal could also hurt hardworking sugar companies, who have been generous donors to the Conservative party, the Brexit campaign and right-wing think tanks.
Johnson repeated his assertion that he had always said it was wrong to boo the England players, which is a half-truth at the very most. The prime minister’s official spokesman, who briefs journalists with his full authority every day, repeatedly refused to condemn fans who booed the players on June 7th but changed his line a few days later to say everyone should cheer them.
The row over booing the team and taking the knee has turned into one battle in the culture war that the Conservatives are losing and some backbench MPs are worried that it is reviving their image as the "nasty party". MPs in the south-east of England fear that Johnson's wooing of older, socially conservative, former Labour voters risks alienating their traditional supporters.
The party’s heavy defeat in last month’s byelection in Chesham and Amersham reinforced these fears and Johnson was at pains on Thursday to stress that levelling up in the North of England and the Midlands would not involve any levelling down in the shires.
The government this week saw off a backbench rebellion over abandoning a pledge not to cut foreign aid but the rebel leader Andrew Mitchell warned that Conservatives could regret their harshness of tone.
“May I say, finally, in humble respect to my own party, that some of us have seen this movie before? It took us 23 years – until 2015 – to achieve an overall majority by wiping out the Liberal Democrat seats, and to achieve it we secured the support of decent, internationalist, pro-development spending people, who saw from our time of austerity that we would stand by this promise,” he said.
"Anyone who thinks that this issue is not affecting our party's reputation is living in cloud cuckoo land. Chesham and Amersham has the biggest Christian Aid group in the country. There is an unpleasant odour wafting out from under my party's front door. This is not who we are. This is not what global Britain is."