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Levelling Up Is At A "Crossroads" With Liz Truss And Rishi Sunak Under Pressure To Explain Plans

Levelling up is supposed to close the economic gap between the north and south, and ensure that opportunity is spread across the country (Alamy)

6 min read

Levelling up is at a “crossroads”, an analyst has said, as Conservative leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss face pressure to set out how they will tackle their party's flagship policy.

Both candidates to be prime minister addressed party members in Darlington earlier this week, as they continue their campaign to win over Conservative members – the only people who have a vote in the contest – across the country. 

The County Durham town is key "leveling up territory", as one of the so-called Red Wall seats the Tories won in 2019 as they made promises to close the north-south economic divide. Local Conservative mayor Ben Houchen is considered a party rising star, and the relocation of some Treasury staff to the town was seen as an attempt to shift policy-making away from Whitehall. 

But at the hustings it seemed that some members are still unclear about what the central party plans to do for the area, and how they will deliver it. 

“Can somebody please explain to me what levelling up means?," Conservative member Kevin, who grew up in Stockton-on-Tees and describes himself as a “very pragmatic guy,” asked Rishi Sunak on Tuesday evening. 

“I don’t want a political answer, I want a practical man to man answer." 

Sunak, whose own Richmond seat is based in North Yorkshire MP told Kevin he believed levelling up was “very simple”.
“The one sentence answer for me when I'm asked is that I want everyone, no matter where they live in the UK, to feel that they have fantastic opportunities, and that they have pride in the place they call home,” he explained. 

“That’s what it’s about, it’s about opportunity and pride in your home.” 

“If we can do that everywhere, if we can make sure people feel that there's opportunity for them and find them at home, we're going to have levelled up.” 

Sunak and Truss have both been criticised on the campaign trail for apparently neglecting the core principles of "levelling up", a manifesto pledge to reduce geographical economic inequality, and make sure that opportunity and investment are spread evenly across the UK.

Last week Truss proposed – and quickly U-turned on – on a policy that could have seen public sector workers outside of London and the South East paid less, leading to accusations she was actively "levelling down" poorer regions

Sunak subsequently found himself in a similarly awkward position after a leaked video showed him telling members in Tunbridge Wells that as chancellor he had made sure “areas like this are getting the funding they deserved”, after Labour had "shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas".

That sense that government has not been especially clear about what people can expect from levelling up has also resonated with Conservative Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, who has backed Sunak to become the next prime minister. 

He told PoliticsHome he is “very clear” that the policy is about getting areas like his “to the starting line”. 

“People from Middlesbrough are equally as talented as people from Kent, but they don't have the same opportunities, and levelling up is about providing opportunity,” he said. 

But he worried messaging had been muddied. “I think nationally, it's not been as clear as it could be," he continued. 

“I think locally we're pretty comfortable with it, a lot of people locally would be able to tell you about levelling up means for Teesside, and they can tell you what else it should mean. 

“But that's why whoever wins needs to do what Boris did, and be just ultra focused on ‘we are committed to levelling up, this is what it means and this is how we're going to deliver it’.” 

Houchen believes the next prime minister’s commitment to levelling up could determine the Conservatives' fate at the next election. 

”I do think that whoever's in charge, if they fail to prioritise it in the way that Boris prioritised it that we will lose a lot of seats, we will absolutely lose a lot of seats as a result," he continued. 

“If they fail to do it, then I just don't see how we can be in a good place to win the next election.”

Much like Houchen, analysts now believe that levelling up is at a “crossroads”.

“The phrase is not going to go,” according to Thomas Pope, deputy chief economist at the Institute for Government. 

“My concern is that the approach does not survive.” 

He thinks “it’s going to be very difficult for the next PM to not retain at least a nominal commitment to levelling up,” but there may not have been enough time for the pledges made in the white paper earlier this year to have properly bedded in on Whitehall. 

“Up until the white paper was published there wasn’t a lot of progress made in making it a concrete thing rather than a slogan,” Pope told PoliticsHome.

“There were attempts to maybe make the fabric of places look better and provide a visible sign that the government is committed to levelling up but it wasn’t a big agenda. The white paper did or could have changed that. 

“While it was light on specific policy it had an overarching coherence to it including change to the way the government evaluates policies, [...] and the senior positions of levelling up directors et cetera. 

“There was a coherent agenda there in changing the way government works to redress the balance of things.”

“Why I think it is at a crossroads is it has not been long enough since the white paper for many of the changes to be implemented and embedded in Whitehall [...] it was quite dependent on Michael Gove being there as a reforming Secretary of State to bring in those ideas.” 

The leadership contest is playing out against a tense backdrop of rising energy bills, the cost-of-living crisis and looming recession, and the next prime minister’s first months in Downing Street will be dominated by addressing these urgent issues. 

The two candidates have faced criticism over a lack of clarity on what they intend to do to keep the economy afloat, but reducing regional inequalities 

“I think [levelling up] is electorally and economically necessary, but how far do you go on it being meaningful and actually doing something about the long-standing productivity divides in this country and actually having a plan for growth?,” Henri Murison of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership asked. 

Truss has said she will introduce tax cuts in an attempt to help rejuvenate the economy and put "more cash back in people’s pockets". 

But Murison questioned whether tax cuts would ultimately "do anything for the UK’s anaemic growth rate".

“The only way to make the country more prosperous and be able to afford these tax cuts is to grow the economy and closing the north/south divide is a very efficient and effective way of getting significant regional growth that contributes towards national growth,” he added. 

“So I would argue that whoever is Prime Minister really needs to engage with this agenda.”

Kevin at least appeared none the wiser about what his party is trying to achieve following Sunak's explanation on Tuesday night. 

“No, I don’t understand it,” he said. 

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