Boris Johnson’s rudderless levelling up plan must be anchored in business
It was Winston Churchill who famously stunned a waiter by asking them to take back his pudding. “There’s no theme!” he bellowed. One man undoubtedly aware of this is Boris Johnson – the Prime Minister who wrote an effusive biography of Britain’s wartime leader before trying to emulate him in Downing Street.
It comes to mind now because of the sheer number of Tories attacking the PM over his own lack of vision – or theme – for Britain and the economy. And this is before the latest blind fury over lockdown parties.
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen was the latest to go public with his frustration this week, warning Boris that he faces disaster unless he starts delivering for Red Wall voters. Before him, David Davis tore into the PM for his vagueness and urged him to “crystallise” what he stands for.
Speak to business leaders and it’s a more rudimentary message. “They’re a shambles,” one exec said of the Government just days ago.
There’s no clue about an industrial strategy, they say. No idea on jobs, no skills programme, no ambition on infrastructure. And don’t get them started on corporation tax. The message is clear – get a grip.
Fortunately for the PM he has the perfect vehicle to address these concerns – the imminent levelling up White Paper, delayed as a result of the Omicron outbreak.
To say the government has struggled to articulate levelling up would be an understatement. The image of Michael Gove – the man charged with making sense of it all – stuck in a lift on Monday summed up progress so far.
The suggestion currently is that Mr Gove will focus on education, skills, R&D and propose a sweeping reorganisation of local Government.
A swathe of new Mayors would be created and empowered to spend the £9bn that currently goes to Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs).
But there’s a gaping hole: there’s next to nothing for business. And that’s the crux. There really needs to be. Boris Johnson needs to use the opportunity afforded by the levelling up strategy to finally map out a detailed vision of what Britain can be as the world mercifully begins to look beyond Covid-19.
He needs to deliver a credible Go for Growth plan that sets the direction of Britain not just in the current fiscal year but over the next 20 years.
Of course, there would be policies to level up not just the North, but poorer parts of cities (yes, even London) and coastal areas.
Critically it would offer a clear sense of direction not just for his own MPs but the business community at large. As one senior Tory insider said: “We’re at our best when we’re radical and we deliver. We have to do that now.”
Fortunately, business is clear about what it wants. And Gove could do worse than reading a speech made in November by Tony Danker, head of the CBI.
Danker’s words at his group’s annual conference received hardly any coverage two months back because they followed a PM fluffing his lines and rambling on about Peppa Pig.
But they’re worth a look. In his speech, Danker spoke of the benefits a comprehensive levelling up programme would bring. He described Britain as a branch line economy – one where the most productive parts of the economy are located in the South-East and back offices are scattered elsewhere.
He called for the Government to look at fostering high-value sectors and high-value skills and to encourage higher business investment through tax reliefs and better connectivity. He talked of the need for ‘economic clusters’ such as the one taking shape on Houchen’s watch in the Tees Valley.
He urged Ministers to lead an industrial strategy around biotech, space, cybersecurity and decarbonisation. To create a virtuous circle of growth in every part of the country that creates better paid jobs and skilled work.
Most notably, for an organisation with supposed EU sympathies, Danker asked the PM to use “post-Brexit freedoms” to unlock potential. It’s a growing theme and one even picked up by other Europhile publications such as the Economist and Financial Times.
Yet the problem No10 faces is how to deregulate and unleash Britannia when Northern Ireland is forced to mirror the EU because of the now infamous Protocol.
Boris has always been able to almost luck his way out of problems, but the levelling up paper is now an acid test of whether a government with an 80 seat majority can tackle the fundamental reform many believe is crucial.
As Churchill himself said, difficulties mastered are opportunities won. For the PM it’s time to dare and endure.