Prime Minister Liz Truss delivers mixed messages on 'levelling up' at Conservative Party Conference

After a lengthy leadership contest, and exactly a month of her premiership, it seems a decent time to consider what Liz Truss' time in office could mean for the North East.Yet pinning that down is not really getting any easier.She didn't talk much about tackling regional inequalities when campaigning for the top job over the summer, but told me in our interview on Sunday that "it's a huge priority" for her, and used the 'levelling up' catchphrase three times during her Conservative party conference speech on Wednesday.Addressing the hall in Birmingham, she started with praise for the Tory mayor in the West Midlands, then said: "our Teesside Mayor Ben Houchen is also delivering new jobs and investment. This is what modern Conservatism looks like."Houchen has been an interventionist mayor, though, taking control of the local airport - while Truss' central ideology is as a small-state Conservative.The new government's main 'levelling up' policy initiative is 'Investment Zones', with lower taxes and looser planning rules to try to stimulate the local economy - and that very same Teesside International Airport is among the places being considered.In her speech, the Prime Minister said: "It is wrong to invest only in places which are thriving, as economic models often have it. We need to fund the furthest behind first."But then she immediately followed it with: "for too long, the political debate has been dominated by the argument about how we distribute a limited economic pie. Instead, we need to grow the pie so that everyone gets a bigger slice."Many people are having fun online by out that pies aren't really things that you can grow.But anyway, she is pursuing that growth, in large part, through tax cuts.The plan to scrap the 45p rate for the highest earners was most controversial and, at a time when many lower-income families are struggling with the rising cost of living, it was opposed by Houchen among other senior Tories.When we did our ITV regional round of interview with Ms Truss on Sunday evening, she was still defending that policy, but by Monday morning the government u-turn had been confirmed.She told me "a decision has not yet been made" on uprating benefits - and that's still the case, at least publicly.A group of 17 charity, community, business and other organisations in the North East have now written together to the PM and Chancellor, urging them to ensure benefit payments rise in line with inflation.Otherwise, they say, it will push many families in the region into "even greater levels of hardship" and "completely undermine the government’s ‘levelling up’ commitments."Actions, of course, speak louder than words.The North East has the UK's highest level of child poverty, alongside other long-term disadvantages, which I looked into in depth in August.A new study by academics from Northumbria University concludes that: "inequity between the North-East and the rest of the UK is widening".I wouldn't be the first to ask whether 'levelling up' was more campaign slogan than conviction for Boris Johnson.In 2019, he succeeded in winning over a number of constituencies in the North East, like Blyth Valley.My colleague Julia Barthram spoke to people there on Wednesday.One woman told her that Liz Truss is "there for herself and her rich friends, she's got no idea how us ordinary people live."Others said they were ready to vote for Labour again - and, while ours was an unscientific approach, successive opinion polls have also found large parts of the 'Red Wall' are fed up with the Conservatives.Perhaps that's why Liz Truss is now talking up 'levelling up'.She may need to work out what it means to her pretty quickly though, with some in her party already questioning her future.

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