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Boris Johnson and Michael Gove visit Blackpool, Feb 2022

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove visit Blackpool, Feb 2022. Photo: Andrew Parsons - No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/ linked below

The Tories have stolen failed policies of their predecessors in a desperate bid to save Johnson’s skin, argues Sean Ledwith

The repellent Michael Gove is behind the latest Tory scheme to deflect attention away from Boris Johnson’s handling of the Downing Street parties fiasco. This week Gove, in his pathetic role as Levelling Up Secretary, launched the government’s overdue and overhyped attempt to put some substance to that annoying rhetorical cliché that no minister is apparently capable of keeping out of an interview.

Outlining the Levelling Up proposals in the Commons this week, Gove absurdly compared the Tory plan for tackling regional inequality to FDR’s reboot of the US economy in the 1930s and even drew bizarre parallels with the Roman Empire which appears to have been plagiarised from Wikipedia!

Earworms

Since their victory in the 2019 election, Johnson and his cabinet have resorted with tedious frequency to churning out the levelling up soundbite as a substitute for actual policies. Like those other Tory earworms, Take Back Control and Build Back Better, this one suits their malign purposes perfectly as it provides an affirmative veneer for the real agenda of austerity, greed and polarisation that this government represents. A YouGov poll last year indicated that over half of respondents did not have a clue what the actual phrase means.

In typically boosterish style, Gove talks about establishing 12 so-called missions on a range of issues that adversely affect the regions of the UK outside London including life expectancy, illiteracy, obesity and health inequalities. Progress on these issues is supposed to be measurable by the end of this decade. He grandly boasts about the “biggest shift of power from Whitehall to local leaders in modern times” and is offering more mayors with executive powers to northern towns that have been hammered in the protracted aftermath of the 2008 recession.

Warm words

Aside from the bluster, what Gove conspicuously failed to mention was the all-important question of funding. He is restricted by the budgetary limit set by Rishi Sunak last year at around £5 billion; a sum described by recognised inequality expert professor Michael Marmomt as pitifully inadequate:

“The £5-6 billion currently allocated to levelling up is tiny given the historic scale of the problem. Mr Gove’s reliance that the money he is putting in will ‘trickle down’ to those who will benefit is, simply, inappropriate by an order of magnitude.”

The think-tank Centre for Cities has similarly noted that a figure of £2 trillion would actually be nearer the mark in terms of a sum that would make a tangible difference to the scale of the deep-rooted problem of regional inequality. Paul Swinney, from the CC makes a contrast with post-unification Germany that exposes the paucity of Gove and Johnson’s plans in this area:

“At the moment we’re in the rounds of a couple of small pots of funding and some nicewarm words about some places and free ports…. The East German example gives you a peg to [assess] how far we are away from that. If we’re absolutely miles away, which we are currently, that feels uncomfortable.

Between 1900 and 2014, governments in Berlin spent up to £70 billion per year supporting investments in the former East Germany to improve infrasture and connectivity. This Tory government can only dream of undertaking that scale of commitment to repairing deindustrialisation. Prisoners of their own Thatcherite dogma, Gove and co. are incapable of contemplating the levels of state intervention that would be required to undo the damage of decades of neglect – most of it by Tory governments of course.

Overshadowed

Gove will have been privately embarrassed not just by the lack of funding for his Levelling Up pipe dreams but also by last November’s cancellation of the Northern Powerhouse high-speed rail link connecting Bradford, Leeds and Manchester, also on the instructions of Sunak at the Treasury. It is feasible the latter perceives short-changing Johnson’s flagship domestic policy as a crafty means of undermining the PM in a future leadership battle.

Critics have also noted Gove’s 12 missions bear an uncanny similarity to Theresa May’s industrial strategy goals launched in 2017 – almoas if they have been copied and pasted in a last minute attempt to cobble something together!

Gove’s brief moment in the parliamentary spotlight has already been overshadowed anyway this week as the horrifying impact of energy price rises becomes apparent. No wonder the beleaguered Levelling Up Secretary himself reportedly described the plans in less than flattering terms recently!

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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