Mon, 20 May 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
Press releases

Boris Johnson might be gone – but levelling up must endure

4 min read

It’s over. At long last, Boris Johnson, perhaps the least suitable holder of the office of Prime Minister in this country’s long history, is gone. He’s history. But not just yet!

For a classicist such as Mr Johnson, there is pleasing symmetry between his demise and that of the emperor Caligula. Both oversaw short, damaging and divisive periods of office and were, ultimately, removed by their own Praetorian guard – to say nothing of their peccadillos and alleged extramarital indulgences.

But as the Conservative backbenches fight like rats in a sack for the right to succeed him, there is one theme of his shameful legacy that cannot be allowed to expire with him. Boris Johnson’s political career might be dead but levelling up must survive.

I am under no illusions that the very idea of levelling up was little more than a rhetorical device used to further his own interests in winning the 2019 general election. But in doing so, he inadvertently touched on something real.

The country must now be wary of more warm words from yet another Tory leader

For too long, a structural imbalance has existed in this country. Some areas have benefited from an abundance of government attention while communities – notably across the North – have been left to wither on the vine.

To Boris Johnson, this was another publicity stunt. A soundbite to appease areas left behind. But true levelling up is about far more than shiny buildings and photo opportunities. It has to be about improving people’s life chances; delivering opportunity for long-forgotten places and righting long-term systemic regional inequalities.

Britain is by some distance the most centralised country in the G7. For too long its leaders have clutched on to power too closely. But the fact is that not one, but two Britains, currently exist – one for the haves and another for the have-nots.

It cannot be right that a man in Westminster can expect to live a full decade longer than one in Blackpool. That only 15 per cent of disadvantaged 18-year-olds in Barnsley go to university, while in London 45 per cent do. Or that for every minute on the roughly two-hour train journey from the Liverpool City Region to London, household income per head falls by £155.

If any good can come from the sorry affair that was the Johnson premiership, let it be a cross-party commitment to tackling this deep-rooted inequality.

Personally, I believe that only a Labour government would be equipped to face that challenge head-on, but the political reality is that our next prime minister will be from the Conservative ranks.

So, to those would-be Tory leaders, my challenge today is this: show your commitment to levelling up through devolution - but provide substance to your rhetoric.

George Osborne let the genie out of the bottle, allowing elected mayors to show that there is a better way of doing things. People no longer want decisions about their area made by the circus in Westminster – across the country they have seen that a better way exists. One led from the ground up.

If the next Conservative leader is committed to doing that, there are a few key projects that might signal their intent.

Whether delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail in full; furthering the powers on offer to local leaders, or giving councils the funding, they need to shield the most vulnerable from the cost-of-living crisis, there are a host of ‘shovel ready’ initiatives that would make a big difference.

If I were being cheeky, I would suggest Mersey Tidal Power, a project in my area that would transform our approach to renewable energy should be at the top of the list. It would address the climate challenge, assist in future energy security and provide a greater return on the investment than nuclear options.

After our experiences with Johnson, the country must now be wary of more warm words from yet another Tory leader. Instead, they need to prove themselves through their actions. Boris Johnson might be gone, but the principles of levelling up must endure.


Steve Rotheram is the Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region.

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.

Read the most recent article written by Steve Rotheram - Devolving rail will put us on track to deliver improvements to our network


Political parties