If levelling up is the vision, net-zero and scientific innovation are the tools
There needs to be a ruthless focus on delivery. The Prime Minister’s success in the red wall was built on his bonhomie and good intentions, but he will suffer if voters fail to feel improvements by the time they next go to the polls.
It is not hyperbole to say that the decisions taken in the next three months will define Boris Johnson’s premiership. As the country returns to normality, Downing Street must simultaneously substantiate its ambitions on “levelling up”, set the UK on a pathway to net-zero, and build Britain into a science superpower. If Johnson succeeds, his legacy will be secure. If he fails, he could be toast.
The scale of ambition is akin to a party entering government after a decade regrouping in opposition – as Tony Blair did in 1997 and David Cameron in 2010 – not a party with the baggage of 11 years in power and the exhaustion of a pandemic. But this famously utopian Prime Minister appears dead set on having his cake and eating it. And, despite the economic and political hangover from coronavirus, he is right to be restless. Parliament is nearly mid-term; he may not get his chance again.
Yet achieving those ambitions will require three elements that increasingly feel in short supply: clarity of vision, a shared sense of purpose, and a relentless focus on delivery. These are the conditions that Dominic Cummings ruthlessly created with “Get Brexit Done”. They are also the demands thrust upon politicians by the ravages of the global pandemic. As we head into party conference, the Prime Minister needs another rallying cry to take his troops over the top.
One of the biggest mistakes to date has been to treat levelling up as distinct from the government’s other priorities
Whatever its shortcomings so far, that rallying cry should be levelling up – for both political and economic reasons. Politically, because the battleground at the next election will be the “red wall”, where the Conservatives now have marginals to defend as well as Labour heartlands to target, rather than the relatively safer south of England. Economically, because evidence shows that regionally balanced economies grow more strongly. This makes levelling up one of the best ways to drive faster, not just broader-based, productivity growth.
One of the biggest mistakes to date has been to treat levelling up as distinct from the government’s other priorities, rather than the thing which unites them. Ben Houchen is bringing jobs and investment to Teesside through the carbon capture, hydrogen and renewables technology that will power net-zero. Similarly the way cities like Leeds and Newcastle will be able to compete in a global knowledge economy is by developing high-value technology industries like those in Cambridge, Tel Aviv or Taiwan. If levelling up is the vision, net-zero and scientific innovation are some of the tools.
A tidier vision should also drive shared purpose across government, notably with a nervous Treasury. It will be easier to convince the Chancellor of the value of green subsidies and new R&D incentives if they are treated as part of the government’s core purpose rather than additional lines of spending. Even better if those investments feed off one another to support agglomeration effects and new industrial clusters that drive productivity at large, as well as in the provinces.
Most importantly, there needs to be a ruthless focus on delivery. The Prime Minister’s success in the red wall was built on his bonhomie and good intentions, but he will suffer if voters fail to feel improvements by the time they next go to the polls. This means driving much more accountability for outcomes within Whitehall, and stronger partnerships with mayors, local authorities and communities themselves to do some of the heavy lifting. You can ultimately only do so much from No 10. Boris Johnson has already faced extraordinary challenges in his short tenure as Prime Minister. The next few months will be his greatest test yet.
Will Tanner is the Director of the Onward thinktank.
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