Senior Conservatives have urged the party’s two leadership candidates to commit to implementing the “levelling up” agenda that helped secure UK prime minister Boris Johnson a landslide election win in 2019, as new polling finds it more popular with prospective Tory voters than Brexit.
The co-author of the party’s last manifesto and former ministers have expressed concern that the Johnson government’s signature policy has only sporadically cropped up during the campaign, with candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss concentrating primarily on tax.
They argued that the commitment to rebalancing the economy away from London and the south-east of England remained crucial both electorally and economically.
New polling from political consultancy Public First found a higher level of net support for levelling up, both among voters overall and with those planning to vote Tory at the next election, than for leaving the EU.
Rachel Wolf, co-author of the party’s 2019 manifesto and Public First’s founder, said at the start of the leadership campaign in mid-July that she was “puzzled” by a sense among candidates that “we should junk everything that led us to win in the first place”.
Speaking last week, she said she had not changed her view. “The risk of this leadership election is that the winner gets locked into trying, and probably failing, to deliver on completely new policies and ignoring their existing mandate from the electorate.
“There is vanishingly little time left to deliver anything substantive on existing promises on levelling up and it needs their attention.”
Johnson first started talking about levelling up publicly three years ago in a pitch to Labour voters who had already backed Brexit in 2016, primarily in post-industrial areas subsequently dubbed the “red wall”.
The promise helped him win a number of traditionally Labour seats in the 2019 election and secure a large parliamentary majority. It took until earlier this year for levelling up to be fleshed out in a white paper featuring 12 “missions”, aimed at narrowing regional divides — including on health, income and growth — by 2030.
A recent report by the Resolution Foundation think-tank said that Britain’s stark level of regional inequality put “the brakes on economic progress nationally” and was “not consistent with future prosperity” and warned that the government was “not serious, yet” about tackling this.
While both leadership contenders have pledged to stick with the levelling up agenda, Lord Jim O’Neill, a Treasury minister in David Cameron’s government and an architect of the “northern powerhouse” — a previous rebalancing policy at the time — remains unconvinced.
“I think they might only play at it and not be serious,” said O’Neill, who is a cross-party peer and has cast doubts on both candidates’ economic policies.
“But I don’t actually see how they do anything other than actually advance the levelling up agenda, in a serious way, otherwise they won’t be around for too long,” adding: “If they don’t, economic stimulus can only work temporarily — and possibly add to our inflation challenges.”
Jake Berry, minister for the northern powerhouse until 2020, who now chairs the Northern Research Group, a Tory backbench pressure group, has also called on both candidates to address the issue urgently.
He is backing Truss but pointed out that until the TV debate last week in Stoke-on-Trent, a post-industrial city on the border of the Midlands and northern England, little had been said about levelling up during the contest.
“I want to hear much more from the candidates about it, because I’m just really, really clear that those seats like Stoke and those other seats in the red wall, they’re not safe Conservative seats,” he told the Northern Agenda podcast. “They’re made up of people who lent us their votes in 2019 on a promise of delivery. If we fail to deliver, we shouldn’t really expect those people to go Conservative next time.”
Recent research by the think-tank IPPR North found the public spending gap between London and elsewhere has in fact grown further in the last three years, despite Johnson’s promise to change the way the UK Treasury makes decisions about where to invest.
Berry said that as a minister “most” of his job had been “battling with the Treasury to get them to buy into this agenda” and Truss, the frontrunner, has promised to change the finance ministry’s approach.
Both candidates have also promised tax incentives to stimulate growth in the regions. Truss has said she would level up “in a Conservative way”, including through new low-tax zones with lower regulation, a policy she has called “full-fat freeports”. Sunak, an early advocate of freeports, wants to boost growth by offering tax breaks for investment and R&D.
Former levelling up minister Neil O’Brien, who quit shortly before Johnson resigned in July, refrained from criticising either candidate but said the levelling up policy was an essential element of any future prime minister’s economic agenda.
He agreed tax incentives would help drive regional growth but cautioned that they would need to be “really substantive to get major private sector firms to invest”. He said other changes were needed “from infrastructure to innovation investment.”
He added: “Countries that have more balanced growth geographically perform more strongly than the UK overall and it’s not hard to see why . . . If you’ve got parts of the country overheating with high house prices and crowded infrastructure, but also parts that are crying out for investment, you can clearly see the scope for a win-win.”
Pointing to the findings of the Public First poll, he added: “The striking thing for me is the degree of consensus, including among Conservative voters, in pushing on with levelling up.”
A spokesperson for Sunak’s campaign said the former chancellor “doesn’t just talk about levelling up, he does it”, pointing to a £4.6bn fund to revive struggling communities and the planned relocation of Treasury officials to the north-east of England.
The Truss campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.