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Conservative MPs Might Actually Know What Levelling Up Is After Conference

4 min read

Conservative MPs and members say they have emerged from party conference with a clearer and more nuanced understanding of the substance behind the government’s levelling up slogan.

Boris Johnson has consistently promised to "level up" the UK since be became Prime Minister in 2019, and in last month's cabinet reshuffle put Michael Gove in charge of delivering it at a government department newly re-named with the slogan. 

But he's never gone as far as explicitly clarifying what it means, or how he intends to achieve it, leaving Tories feeling frustrated. One MP recently told the BBC it was little more than "a lot of buzzwords”.

After 37 levelling-up fringe events in Manchester this week, and many more mentions of the phrase in Conference speeches, Conservative MPs and members now seem to feel less in the dark.

"In his speech, Michael Gove made it abundantly clear that levelling up is about raising living standards and aspirations," Stockton South MP Matt Vickers told PoliticsHome.

“I was very encouraged to witness ministers' commitment to this agenda throughout conference and I hope that, in time, Teesside will be the shining beacon that this government can point to as evidence of what levelling up means in real terms."

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt also believed the last week had provided much-needed clarity on the matter. "From some conversations I’ve had with others, conference has been helpful in helping them understand what it is,” he said.

“One of the events that I was part of discussed what levelling up is in relation to disadvantaged kids and education.

“Overall, it’s about levelling up the entirety of society – a more even geographical spread of opportunity, wealth creation and standards of living.”

Young party members we spoke to believed that at its core, the idea is about creating equality of opportunity throughout Britain's regions. 

"It's about spreading opportunity around across the country," one Young Conservative member said. 

"Like north, north-east, north-west – not just having things that are so London-centric." 

At a fringe event hosted by the think tank Policy Exchange, Levelling Up Minister Neil O’Brien offered some explanation. He said that levelling up is a four-fold concept involving empowering local leaders and communities, growing the private sector in areas with lower living standards, improving public services, and heightening civic pride. 

“This is a massive agenda, it’s a huge expensive thing,” O’Brien told the audience of party members and business representatives.

“We are a slightly different political party after the 2019 election and the 2016 [Brexit referendum] result. We have a lot more colleagues in places that once upon a time people told us we would never ever get to."

He described levelling up as being a "strong one nation agenda" that leaned on the private sector, and was keen to point out that it was "not a left-wing agenda", despite it being a key policy for appealing to former Labour voters. 

"It is an agenda for the whole country and it's going to help all people who felt neglected for a long time,” he added. 

The government has announced a £4.8 billion levelling up fund, creating new combined mayoral authorities and basing civil servant jobs away from Whitehall and into towns and cities across Britain’s regions. Some have already been actioned, including the formation of a £3.6 billion towns fund.

A set of specific levelling up policies will be laid out in a new white paper, due to be published in the next month.

The paper will also include metrics for measuring whether the four levelling objectives have been achieved.

But while members at this week's conference did seem more confident they now understood the broad concept of levelling up, ministers remained tight-lipped on exactly what the policies and metrics for their delivery included in the white paper would be. 

“In the levelling up white paper we’ll set out what we’re going to do," O’Brien told PoliticsHome.

"I don’t particularly want to get into a big, long list, because there’s obviously loads of different measures we can use.” 

He promised the detail would be published "shortly". 

Voters, particularly those in so-called red wall seats, will ultimately be the judge of whether the concept translates into tangible improvements to their everyday lives. 

A member of Labour’s National Executive Committee PoliticsHome spoke to remained unconvinced that the Conservartive party's flagship message had consistently cut through yet. 

“There may be awareness of the concept in the specific seats that changed hand in the last election because their new MPs will be pushing it," they said.

"But I don’t think the terminology is very well understood locally, even after the efforts to communicate it at conference.”

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