Boris Johnson seeks to head off revolt in the Tory shires

Levelling up won’t make rich areas poorer, says PM – but his Conservative critics are unconvinced

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: David Rose - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson today sought to reassure traditional southern Conservative heartlands that they won’t be forgotten as he outlined his flagship “levelling up” programme during a speech in the West Midlands.

The prime minister said his government plans to invest more in poorer areas but promised there would not be a “levelling down” affecting more affluent areas. The policy would not result in “a jam-spreading operation”, he insisted.

Tall poppies

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“We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies,” Johnson said, in a gambit interpreted by many as designed to reassure southern voters. “We don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer.”

He also said investing in more deprived areas will relieve pressure on parts of the UK that are “over-heating”, and that previous governments focused too much on “areas where house prices are already high and where transport is already congested”.

Concrete policy announcements included measures aimed at “stimulating growth”, says ITV, such as £4.2bn for eight city regions to improve their transport networks and £50m for football pitches, as well as a promise to put “rings of steel” around towns plagued by county lines drugs gangs.

But “the heart of Boris Johnson’s levelling-up speech” was “the imperative of transferring power back to regions and localities” through an increase in local leaders, such as country and metro mayors, said ITV’s Robert Peston.

Indeed, the PM said an increase in local leadership was the “yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough” in the pursuit of “levelling up” the country. “This country is not only one of the most imbalanced in the developed world, it is also one of the most centralised – and those two defects are obviously connected,” he said.

Right-wing reaction

The prime minister sees levelling up as the “fundamental purpose of his government”, says Alex Wickham in Politico’s London Playbook, but has been “criticised by Conservative MPs worried about Downing Street neglecting their traditional heartlands”, he writes.

Today, therefore, Johnson was under pressure to “deliver on substance” – especially as he finds himself mired in an avoidable culture war spat over racism in football, and as backbench discontent increases over Covid, cuts to foreign aid, and social care spending.

The Conservatives’ recent byelection loss in Chesham and Amersham “has been taken by nervous Tories and confident Liberal Democrats as a sign of wider Conservative complacency about its vote in the south”, says Ailbhe Rea in the New Statesman.

And while most media commentators argue the speech was designed to reassure the southern heartlands, The Sun’s Harry Cole saw it instead as a “passionate defence” of the levelling-up agenda, designed to “confront those Tory critics who believe he is too focused on the North”.

But many of his own MPs seemed unimpressed. Discontented Tory MPs told The Telegraph that the speech would fail to soothe “disillusioned” southern Conservative voters.

“It might be an attempt, but it’s not what I hear from my Blue Wall voters,” one former Cabinet minister told the paper. “Their disillusionment with the party is that they don’t think we are very conservative.

“The leadership jars with our traditional voters… back to being the nasty party,” the unnamed MP added.

“Meh” was the reaction of the right-wing political blog Guido Fawkes, which said the speech confirmed that “no-one knows what ‘levelling up’ means in specific policy terms, including Boris”.

Conservative MP Laura Farris seemed inclined to agree. “The thing about levelling up is because its a rather ambiguous phrase it means whatever anyone wants it to mean,” she said on the BBC’s Politics Live.

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.