3 min read15 July
More than 50 Conservative MPs have pledged to hold the Prime Minster’s “feet to the fire” over his levelling up promises, saying he must deliver on his commitments before the next election.
Boris Johnson’s speech in Coventry, pitched by Number 10 as his key intervention before Parliament breaks for recess, was given a lukewarm reception by Labour and regional bodies.
Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said there was a lack of “credible action” so far, while the Northern Powerhouse Partnership said the lack of a regional rail plan was delaying progress.
The powerful Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs were also reserved in their praise for the speech. This afternoon they said they will be sharply monitoring pledges in Johnson’s proposal to improve the fortunes of all regions of the UK in the next few years.
Richard Holden, Conservative MP for North West Durham – a key “red-wall” seat – who is a spokesperson for the group, said: “There’s a lot still to do but the fact the government’s even been pushing it despite Covid-19 shows they want to do it.
“But I tell you now, me and the rest of the Northern Research Group will be holding their feet to the fire to make sure they actually deliver.”
In Holden’s patch, the jobs secured by the new electric vehicle plant at Nissan at Sunderland, investment at Teessport and civil service jobs moving to Darlington where examples of “some positive” moves for regional prosperity.
But he said there would be “no excuse” not to focus on the economic aspect of “levelling up” as the country moves out of the pandemic.
“I genuinely believe the PM wants to deliver this but our job is to make sure he and the rest of the government see it as their absolute mission to deliver it,” said Holden.
The Tory backbencher beat Labour’s Laura Pidcock at the last election to take Durham North West seat for the first time since it was created in 1950.
The NRG was founded two years ago and is led by Jake Berry, a former northern powerhouse minister and close ally of Johnson. They have been an influential thorn in the side of government, demanding an economic recovery plan for the north post-Covid, as well as demanding an exit strategy from restrictions, which had led to parts of the north west being in lockdown for longer than other areas.
Speaking at the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry, Johnson rehashed his election winning argument that his government would ensure geography did not dictate a person’s destiny and tackle the fact that life expectancy is still too regionally imbalanced.
There were few concrete offers made today, but they included a pledge to allow county area devolution deals similar to cities, and £50 million for football pitches.
Despite Johnson’s frequent use of the “levelling up” phrase, the speech was also seen as an attempt to set out its meaning again to the public. Holden said it still has value, particularly in the north and voters like it.
“Levelling up” is not about cash transfers to the north or handouts, Holden explained, but transforming areas through investment and employment opportunities, particularly giving economic stimulus for manufacturing, and focusing on low carbon hi-tech jobs.
While Holden could account for the policy, earlier today Tory MP Laura Farris said it was “ambiguous and means whatever anyone wants it to mean”. A White Paper on the subject is due this autumn.
There had been concern that the crushing by-election result in the former Tory safe seat of Chesham and Amersham was in part due to the Tory focus on the north of England at the expense of its shire seats and traditional voters.
Johnson said that levelling up was “win-win” and regional prosperity should not be bad news for the south or London.
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