News from Nowhere: On The Level
Mr. Johnson, a man capable of the most sudden and opportunistic volte-faces in his ideologies, policies and loyalties, a man whose reputation for unscrupulousness would, by comparison, have made Machiavelli look like Mandela.
Last week, the British government announced its long-awaited strategy to 'level up' the most economically deprived areas of the country.
The timing of this announcement had been underpinned by the increasingly vocal dissatisfaction of backbench Conservative MPs with Boris Johnson’s administration. This was provoked in part by the ongoing the revelations of the Prime Minister’s multiple breaches of his own social distancing regulations. Indeed, only that morning, one paper had reported that the Tories had put Mr Johnson ‘on notice’ while another revealed that police were investigating yet another ostensibly unlawful government gathering, publishing claims that ‘Boris Johnson attended a prosecco-fuelled leaving do for a No. 10 aide during the strict post-Christmas lockdown’ of early last year.
By 5 February, The Times was reporting a ‘civil war’ in Johnson's Cabinet. That day also saw reports of the police holding a picture taken by his official photographer of the Prime Minister holding a can of beer at his lockdown-breaching birthday bash. His colleagues were moving against him, but, on 6 February, the Sunday Times reported that Boris Johnson had told colleagues that it would take a tank division to force him out of Downing Street. A former Tory minister responded on social media that he now at last understood why Johnson had cut almost all the tanks from the British army.
On top of all this, Johnson’s backbenchers were also especially incensed by the government’s decision to push ahead with a tax rise set to affect ordinary working people across the country at a time of sharp increases in the prices of energy and food. This issue particularly exercised the political passions of the so-called ‘red wall’ MPs, that cadre of Conservatives who had at the last election precipitated a Tory landslide when, boosted by pro-Brexit sentiment, they had sensationally broken through to take swathes of traditionally Labour seats in the Midlands and the North of England. It was those parliamentarians who had grown impatient at Mr. Johnson’s failure to fulfil his pledges to take decisive action to restore the socio-economic fortunes of their own constituencies, in parts of Britain long ignored by government, and who had for some months been demanding urgent action on that score.
The Prime Minister had, at his last reshuffle, passed responsibility for this difficult task to perhaps the most calculatingly devious of his senior colleagues, a man who had proven, at different times, to be both a trusted political ally and a bitter political rival to Mr. Johnson, a man capable of the most sudden and opportunistic volte-faces in his ideologies, policies and loyalties, a man whose reputation for unscrupulousness would, by comparison, have made Machiavelli look like Mandela. This was a man who displayed fewer moral principles than even his boss. This man was the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP.
Mr. Gove was appointed last September as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, a month after he had been filmed dancing alone and rather erratically in a nightclub in Aberdeen. It was not immediately obvious whether this promotion to one of the most strategically important positions in Mr. Johnson’s Cabinet was intended as a reward for his incongruous degree of organisational competence or as a punishment for that undignified indiscretion.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s political logic seemed impeccable. If Mr. Gove succeeds in this Herculean task, then the man who appointed him can take the credit. If he fails, then he will himself be saddled with the blame, and therefore be removed from the running as a serious contender for Mr. Johnson’s crown.
This was a big job, a massive job and an almost impossible job. It was a job made even harder by the lack of resources that the Prime Minister was willing to allocate to support it. It was a huge ask, and a huge task, and it should also have been huge news.
However, the news headlines on the morning of the announcement of this key government strategy were dominated by a series of other stories, narratives which spoke of the problems of a nation divided and impoverished by inequities and inequalities, by deprivation and depravation, by violence against the vulnerable and the neglect of those most sorely in need.
The Daily Mirror led with the news that January had seen retail price rises at double the previous year's rates, threatening an increase of two thousand pounds in the average household's cost of living.
The Daily Mail and the Express ran with their outrage at the admission that £8.7 billion pounds had been wasted as a result of the government’s scandalously inept PPE procurement processes in the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis – on top of the £4.3 billion already lost to fraud on pandemic-related business loan schemes.
This squandering of the nation’s finances seemed particularly offensive in the context of anxieties as to falling living standards and concerns that were already being raised as to the paucity of new funding available to support the government’s plans to level up the UK’s poorest regions. The Guardian stressed the Opposition’s claim that the Conservatives’ levelling-up agenda merely represented ‘new slogans without new ideas’ – or indeed additional budgets – while the BBC pointed out that its spending pledges were ‘rather limited’ and that many of the campaign’s strands were ‘existing government policies, with funds already allocated to them’.
The Daily Telegraph’s front page included a report on the levelling-up campaign, but knocked the story into third place after news that a senior civil servant had turned down the chance to take a new position as Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office at Downing Street, and a report on access to hormone replacement therapy.
In other news that morning, the front pages of both the Metro and The Times reported the news that a group of Metropolitan Police officers had been caught exchanging obscene racist and chauvinist remarks on WhatsApp, comments which included jokes about rape and domestic violence. Meanwhile, The Sun headlined the arrest of a premier league footballer on suspicion of sexual assault.
That news cycle had been overwhelmed by a range of stories about similar abuse: the Scottish football club which had signed a player who had been proven to be a rapist in a civil court case; the historic failure of the police to investigate organised child abuse; the murder of a woman stalked by her ex-husband. Britain that day seemed even more broken than usual, and it was unclear how Michael Gove’s plans to enhance the powers of city mayors, and to improve regional transport links and broadband coverage, would do very much to fix it.
The following day’s news wasn’t much better for the government or for Mr. Gove’s campaign. It was announced that the national cap on energy prices was set to rise by 54 per cent, pushing average household fuel bills up by £693 a year. On top of that, the Bank of England imposed a hike in interest rates, which would result in increased monthly mortgage payments for millions of people.
Three more Tory MPs declared that they had submitted letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister, four of Mr. Johnson’s senior aides resigned (one explicitly in protest at his recent conduct), and the Chancellor admitted that the furore surrounding the Downing Street parties had damaged public confidence and trust in Boris Johnson’s administration. At the same time, the UK Statistics Authority refuted the Prime Minister’s claim to parliament the previous day that crime had fallen on his watch. There was, as the BBC’s Political Editor observed, quoting an anonymous senior Conservative, ‘not just a nightmare on Downing Street but a total meltdown’.
The next morning, the front page of the enormously influential Tory tabloid, the Daily Mail, also announced that ‘Meltdown in Downing Street’. It added a request that the last person to leave the Prime Minister’s office should please ‘turn out the lights’. In doing so, it echoed a notorious headline that The Sun newspaper had deployed on the day of the 1992 general election to dash the ambitions of Labour leader Neil Kinnock to become Prime Minister: ‘will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’. The Mail’s allusion to this thirty-year-old headline was sharply pointed: this, it suggested, was starting to look like a political endgame. That morning, a fifth Downing Street adviser quit.
The levelling up scheme itself was not prompting a much more sympathetic response. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, a highly respected independent academic and policy think tank, had observed that Mr. Gove’s proposals might have asserted where they wanted the country to go, but appeared to have ‘no sense’ of how to get there. As a critique, it was as cutting as it was clear.
So, was this strategy, as some commentators and opponents claimed, merely an improvised amalgam of previous initiatives, a hastily assembled PR exercise designed to appease the Conservative Party’s own rebellious ranks? Were the Tories really intending to expend any significant efforts and resources on parts of the country so remote from their own heartlands? Why should anyone trust a premier who had broken so many promises and told so many lies to fulfil this particular electoral pledge? Whichever way one looked at it, it was becoming increasingly uncertain whether the government were really on the level about all of this. One suspects that there are certain senior Conservatives who consider that there are cities in Britain that don’t need levelling up so much as they just need levelling.
The government paper on levelling up published last week refers to the ancient Romans’ establishment of the settlement of Londinium and the value of the Biblical city of Jericho as a regional hub. This would appear to represent the extent to which the Johnson administration is in touch with the most impoverished areas of the UK in the twenty-first century.
Of course, there are many reasons why the Prime Minister’s plans may yet backfire. The famously treacherous Mr. Gove might, for instance, very publicly demand the budgets so evidently necessary to make his strategy work and then denounce his boss for failing to provide them. It remains to be seen if in this, his latest piece of political sleight of hand, Mr. Johnson can succeed in transforming his public image from that of the great pretender into that of the great leveller, or whether, by handing the poison chalice of this apparently impossible task to his old rival, the crafty, duplicitous and conspicuously level-headed Michael Gove, he will have ended up gifting him the keys to Downing Street. This could, in short, be a tactical masterstroke, or it might prove to be Boris Johnson’s greatest ever career mistake.