Levelling up: Boris Johnson’s battle to turn slogans into effective policies

This is the first part of an FT series asking whether Boris Johnson is pursuing reforms that will change the face of Britain. Follow UK politics & policy with myFT to be alerted when new articles are published.

It was billed as the great reveal. After two years in which his premiership had been almost entirely consumed by “getting Brexit done” and managing a global pandemic, it was to be the moment that Boris Johnson defined his much-vaunted “levelling up” agenda. 

In the end, the rambling speech delivered by the prime minister in July fell flat. There was a kernel of a big idea — that “for too many people, geography turns out to be destiny” — but it was shrouded in a list of initiatives that lurched from the tired to the tokenistic, such as the promise of an extra £50m for football pitches.

Johnson is now trying again, with the stage set for a reboot of his domestic programme at next week’s Conservative party conference. After an unexpectedly brutal cabinet reshuffle this month that elbowed aside failing ministers, the prime minister’s advisers say he has a “crucial” 18 months to deliver on his policy agenda, before the party machine starts mobilising for a general election — considered most likely in 2024.

Despite that much-derided speech, which one senior Conservative says was delivered because “the PM just wanted to say something — anything — about levelling up”, they insist there is a renewed determination to bring clarity to policies that can both win the next election and begin to deliver on a grander promise to transform the economic and social geography of Britain.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
The question is whether Boris Johnson has the stamina and attention to detail that is needed to mobilise the government behind the levelling up plan © David Rose/PA

On paper, the ambition is huge. In a speech to the Ditchley Foundation last year, Michael Gove, the recently appointed minister in charge of “levelling up”, compared Johnson’s plan for Britain to nothing less than Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal after the Great Depression. Borrowing from Roosevelt, he promised “the reorientation of government to help the forgotten man” — proving, if nothing else, that the concept of the “left behind” is not new. 

Insiders say Johnson has identified the three areas of focus — net zero and the green industrial revolution; getting people back to work with the right skills; and recovering pandemic-hit public services — that, when combined together, can level up the country.

But the key question is whether Johnson, a political alchemist and proven winner of elections, also has the stamina, discipline and attention to detail that is needed to mobilise the government machinery behind such a complex and multi-departmental endeavour.

Can Boris Johnson change the face of Britain?

With Johnson seeking to be in power for a decade, the FT is examining whether he is pursuing reforms that will have a lasting impact on the UK.

Part 1 Can Johnson turn his levelling up slogan into a substantial set of domestic reforms?

Part 2 Will the plan to provide skills for workers through an overhaul of further education succeed?

Part 3 What does the proposal to turn Britain into a “science superpower” mean in practice?

Part 4 Does Johnson have a detailed plan to put the UK on a course to net zero emissions?

Part 5 What does the reform of immigration rules mean for business and the economy?

Some of his recent predecessors with big plans when they entered Downing Street, such as Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, were famed for their ability to master complicated briefs. Self-confessedly more of a big picture politician, Johnson is now being asked to commit to spending two hours a week monitoring the progress of a domestic agenda that he hopes can change the face of Britain.

It will be a huge task to stay the course. Johnson sceptics note he will need to find this new sense of direction in the teeth of a gathering storm of problems this winter, including rising energy and food prices, tax increases and potentially another wave of Covid-19.

One senior Tory who worked in Thatcher’s Downing Street wistfully contrasts Johnson’s factionalised administration with the “small, happy team” that served the Iron Lady. She offered a clear central command, he recalls, but with powerful ministers in cabinet to implement her demands. “Johnson pinballs around, like Billy Bunter in the tuck shop,” he adds, “Grabbing handfuls of sweets, not sure how he can pay for them but confident he can find his way out of whatever fix he’s landing himself, because generally he has in the past.” 

Two pathways

There are, say policy experts, two paths the Johnson government can now take in pursuit of its ambitions, each of which will bring very different results. Even now, it is not clear which road Johnson will choose.

A man walks down a terraced street in Burnely
Delivering skills to create green jobs will benefit northern towns such as Burnley, where there is a higher percentage of homes that need new insulation and low-carbon heating systems © Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

One is quick and cosmetic and will give what Gove called a “sugar rush” to voters ahead of a general election. The alternative, which is harder but with more long-lasting effects, requires what Jill Rutter, a former Downing Street adviser, calls a “whole of government” approach that will join the dots of the key manifesto pledges.

“The easy option is to throw a load of money at high streets and towns and give it a proper noun — you could call it a ‘Boris Makeover’,” says Torsten Bell, director of the Resolution Foundation think-tank. “But that won’t do the trick if you want to close the gaps in productivity and educational attainment.” 

Achieving that deeper reorientation will require a more strategic approach, says Andrew Carter, director of the Centre for Cities think-tank. “The trick that has so far been missed by the Johnson government is to take the skills and ‘net zero issue’, alongside planning and transport reforms, and implement them in a way that delivers the geographical impacts the government is seeking,” he says.

The ambitious version of levelling up, therefore, aims to create a virtuous circle that sees separate policy agendas working to reinforce the other. Put another way, delivering skills to create green jobs will disproportionately benefit northern towns such as Burnley and Hull, where there is a greater need for retraining and a higher percentage of homes that need new insulation and low-carbon heating systems if the UK is to reach net zero carbon dioxide emissions.

Building an ‘ideas factory’

Melding manifesto pledges into something greater than the sum of their parts will take leadership from Johnson himself, as well as a level of persistence and political courage that has not always been evident in his first two years in Downing Street. His now-spurned adviser Dominic Cummings memorably compared his former boss to a wonky “shopping trolley”, veering this way and that, avoiding tough decisions and personal confrontations, partly as a device to keep rivals guessing. 

That might work as a political strategy but does not allow coherent policymaking, says Ryan Shorthouse, director of Bright Blue, a liberal-conservative think-tank. For Shorthouse, the Johnson government’s policy output pales in comparison even to the Cameron-Clegg coalition government of 2010, which delivered concrete ideas, from academy schools to universal credit. “Then, the Cabinet Office felt like an ideas factory, but you just don’t get that sense from this government,” he adds.

But those who have more faith in Johnson say it is too early to rush to judgment. As a prime minister faced with the constitutional crisis of Brexit and then a once-in-a-century pandemic, they warn that past performance may not be a good guide to future results.

The early foundations for this next phase of Johnson’s premiership will be laid by a multiyear spending review on October 27, and a white paper to condense the fog of July’s levelling up speech into fully formed legislative ideas. Crucially, Downing Street is also getting a new delivery unit that is being led by Emily Lawson, the NHS executive who led the Covid-19 vaccine rollout and became one of the administrative stars of the pandemic response. Andy Haldane, the Yorkshire-born former chief economist at the Bank of England who taught himself maths, has been brought into the Cabinet Office to bring fresh impetus to the levelling up agenda.

And while Johnson’s government is often accused of short-termism, his advisers say schemes intended to deliver quick results, such as the £3.6bn Towns Fund, are not mutually exclusive with longer-term plans. “People will want to see better transport connections, better high streets and signs that there are bigger changes on the way,” says one adviser.

Still, the deeper narrative around those “bigger changes” has yet to emerge, says Will Tanner, director of the Onward think-tank. “That’s what the white paper needs to do. Set out the policy behind the rhetoric, that will drive real change by supporting innovation and growth in different parts of the country,” adds Tanner, whose think-tank has driven a lot of thinking behind the levelling up agenda.

Johnson doesn’t need to mimic Thatcher’s authoritarian style to get things done, says Sir Michael Barber, the founder of Tony Blair’s delivery unit, who spent the first six months of this year advising Johnson how to set up his own.

Barber says the PM is more focused than he’s sometimes given credit for. He’s also sufficiently self-aware to know that he needs a strong details and delivery team around him and can be surprisingly pushy in meetings with ministers. “He’s charming but also challenging,” says Barber.

But to convert big picture ideas into deliverable policies, discipline will be key, cautions Barber. There will be a system of “stock-takes” on progress in the key themes every two months, with an “update note” on one of the areas every Friday, delivered direct to Johnson. 

These notes are themselves drivers of change, says Barber, getting sluggish Whitehall departments to pick their feet up in order to demonstrate progress to the prime minister ahead of time. “It was transformative,” he recalls of his stint running Blair’s delivery unit in the early 2000s. “Instead of the PM reading in the newspaper that we were off-track, he’d get a monthly note on Friday on one of four themes. It galvanised departments.” 

Dominic Cummings
Former adviser Dominic Cummings, pictured, memorably compared Boris Johnson to a wonky ‘shopping trolley’, veering this way and that, avoiding tough decisions © Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Others close to Johnson claim Downing Street is still underpowered and the delivery unit remains “a work in progress” — a reflection, they say, of the damage caused by Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s iconoclastic former adviser, who wanted to slash the civil service in the early 2010s. “Everywhere you look, the system is wanting,” says one highly placed official in the Johnson administration. “We have a real problem even getting reliable data on what’s happening on the ground.”

Still, Barber, now a professional “deliverologist” who has advised governments from Peru to Punjab province in Pakistan, says change can come, and the core commitment needed from Johnson to keep the delivery juggernaut on track is just two hours a week. “It is easy to underestimate how hard it is to find that time in a prime minister’s schedule, but the way I phrased it was, ‘take just two hours of your 70-hour week to deliver on your domestic policy priorities, that must surely be worth it’?.”

Johnson the governor?

In theory, the application of discipline should deliver what Barber calls “government by routine” rather than spasms of policymaking. Botched announcements corrode public trust, particularly on politically tricky areas of policy, such a the road to net zero, where the public still need to be persuaded that the benefits outweigh the costs. 

A recent case in point was the bureaucratic disaster of the £1.5bn Green Homes Grant scheme to fund the “greening” of housing stock with grants of £10,000-£15,000 to pay for insulation or low-carbon heating solutions. Just last September ministers announced the “fantastic” programme was a key part of the government’s ambition to “Build Back Better”, but then abandoned it in March after a litany of administrative failures

This is precisely the kind of incoherence that saps public confidence and fuels political opposition to difficult policies, according to Tim Lord, the former director for clean growth at the business department and now at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Michael Gove
Michael Gove is the recently appointed minister in charge of ‘levelling up’ © Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

Which leads to the other question mark that hangs over Johnson as an administrator, rather than a campaigner: does he have the mettle to force through the necessary but unpopular parts of this agenda? Barber recalls that Blair used to say that sometimes a prime minister needs to “level with” the public, but while Johnson likes to use that phrase, the boosterism that defines his political brand makes this instinctively difficult. Already many familiar faces from the Conservatives’ hard-Brexit wing are questioning whether net zero is really affordable.

If Johnson wants to set the UK on that path, he will probably need to face these opponents down. He will also need to grind policies through the system, riding out what Barber calls the “implementation dip” that always follows the introduction of a new policy initiative. 

Courage will be key to the long-term credibility of these goals, and not just on net zero. There are more fights ahead: amended planning reforms will need to overcome opposition in some southern Tory strongholds; toughening the repayment terms for students going to university may be needed to encourage more 18-year-olds to take up vocational and technical education; and employers may need to be pushed into delivering more apprenticeships.

Lasting legacy

No one should underestimate the scale of the challenge that Johnson faces. Unlike Blair, whose priorities — education, health and crime — could be neatly siloed, Johnson’s levelling up agenda cuts across multiple Whitehall departments, and in the case of net zero and immigration reform, areas of foreign policy too. 

 Loft insulation
A loft insulation. Botched announcements corrode public trust, including the bureaucratic disaster of the £1.5bn Green Homes Grant Scheme to fund insulation or low-carbon heating solutions © Rosemary Roberts/Alamy

And yet it is easy to point up the challenges and lose sight of the political opportunity that now presents itself. Back in 2017, during an abortive tilt at the Tory leadership Johnson published an essay setting out his vision for post-Brexit Britain. The 4,000-word promise to build a better country was, as Charles Moore, his former editor at the Daily Telegraph, fondly observed, typically larded with “elements of Borisian tosh”, but it also contained the core elements of his current vision: wider access to training; a commitment to adult education; a boost to scientific endeavour; more homes for ordinary people; and a greener future that will create jobs and drive investment.

Those ambitions are lofty, but not unattainable. Delivered strategically they can reduce the extent to which growing up in Britain means “geography is destiny”. James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation, says that even setting the UK on the path to net zero and making “life-long learning” a reality would be significant achievements. “He won’t go down in history as [Clement] Attlee,” he says, “but he’ll be able to say he built things that can last.”

To succeed Johnson will need to find a way to take the public into his confidence at a time when British politics has dissolved into bitter binaries. On the tough choices, it has become harder than ever to level with a public that — as Gove observed in his Ditchley lecture — now has “a deep sense of disenchantment” with the political establishment.

It was partly by preying on that disenchantment that Johnson secured the keys to Number 10. But there was also a promise that the destruction of the old establishment would create better lives for the “forgotten man”. It still could, but as those with experience of government know well, creation will prove harder than destruction. 

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