Boris Johnson urges Wales to join 'Levelling Up plan' - but is it a smokescreen for a power grab?

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are today (February 2) publishing their proposals in a long-awaited White Paper, which describes how a future law would work. Credit: PA/ITV Wales

The UK Government is urging the leaders of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to join forces with ministers in London to deliver their “Levelling Up” plan.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are today (February 2) publishing their proposals in a long-awaited White Paper, which describes how a future law would work.

They’re promising to set 12 UK-wide “missions” which they say would boost prosperity in every party of the UK.

But opponents say the proposals are lacking detail and don’t include any new money to pay for them.

Many of the suggested changes can only be delivered in England because the powers are devolved to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish administrations. That’s why the UK ministers are urging the national leaders to work with them.

Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove said that in the past “not everyone has [shared] equally in the UK’s success.”

At the same time there are aspects of the plans which will impact on devolved areas such as education with or without the support of the devolved institutions.

Speaking ahead of the launch, Boris Johnson said that the blueprint is “the next crucial step” in efforts to give equal opportunities to people in all parts of the UK.

“It is a vision for the future that will see public spending on R&D increased in every part of the country; transport connectivity improving; faster broadband in every community; life expectancies rising; violent crime falling; schools improving; and private sector investment being unleashed.

“It is the most comprehensive, ambitious plan of its kind that this country has ever seen and it will ensure that the government continues to rise to the challenge and deliver for the people of the UK.”

Meanwhile the Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove said that in the past “not everyone has [shared] equally in the UK’s success.”

“Great cities like Glasgow, Belfast, Swansea and Manchester, and proud towns from Aberystwyth to Armagh, to Bangor and Yeovil, have huge potential but contain inequalities which hold too many back.

“Our ambitious plan to unite and level up the whole UK seeks to end that historic injustice and call time on the postcode lottery.

“We will only succeed if all layers of government – UK, devolved, and local – work together.

“We have seen through the success of the vaccine roll-out what we can achieve when we pull together. United, there is no challenge we cannot meet.”

His call is unlikely to be warmly received by the First Ministers who have long been sceptical that Levelling Up is at best a series of empty promises and, at worst, an attempt to claw power back to Westminster.

What does 'levelling up' mean and is it just a smokescreen for a power grab?

Sometimes you just have to accept that a bit of political jargon isn’t going to go away. “Brexit” was one of those terms that ended up being used so much that it made its way into the dictionaries.

Like that word, “levelling up” has so dominated the political agenda in recent years that it now even has a UK Government minister and department named after it.

The term “levelling up” essentially means improving the economic well-being of people in areas that have been traditionally more deprived than others without taking too much from the better off.

That’s why it’s tended to be used by Conservatives; as Boris Johnson put it in June 2021, "We don't think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer."

He added that “it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Levelling Up is unlikely to be warmly received by First Ministers who are sceptical that it is an attempt to claw power back to Westminster. Credit: PA

But while “levelling up” may now be associated with Boris Johnson’s government, it was also used by Theresa May and before that by New Labour under Tony Blair.

In fact it goes even further back to the 19th century. If you’re interested, UK in a Changing Europe has a fascinating history here.

It’s also used in the gaming world, meaning that a player moves up different levels and that’s a meaning which has also attached itself to the political term.

If you see Boris Johnson as a game player, certainly as a gambler, that kind of levelling up also makes sense.

For him and his supporters it’s tied up with Britain’s departure from the European Union and his successful 2019 UK election campaign.

Both things are intertwined: his promises to use the opportunities that he claims Brexit offers to make life better for people in “left-behind” areas is credited with helping him win his 80-seat majority.

There’s evidence that it won over voters in constituencies once known as “red wall seats” because they’d been so loyally Labour for so long, including those in North Wales which turned Tory in 2019.

“Levelling up” has long been criticised by opponents as nothing more than empty promises of “jam tomorrow.”

That’s why what happens this week was already important even before it became part of Boris Johnson’s desperate efforts to stay in post and in power.

People who put aside their doubts about Boris Johnson will want to see concrete proof that his promises are being kept.

The White Paper is expected to be - will have to be - a blueprint setting out exactly how that will happen.

What kind of projects will it involve, what sort of money is attached to them - early announcements this week had to be corrected to clarify that they used pre-announced funding - these are things that will have to be spelled out by the Levelling Up minister Michael Gove.

He’s been reported this week privately not to think very much about what he’s about to announce but you can expect him to be more positive in public.

Boris Johnson told his cabinet on Tuesday that “the policy represented a great moral mission that has the potential for fantastic economic benefit.”

It’s also being criticised as a power grab, using the cover of Brexit to claw back power from Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish governments as well as from the UK parliament and from local authorities and devolved mayors in England.

It’s certainly true that the various streams of Levelling Up including the UK Internal Market Act, the Shared Prosperity Fund and a newly promised Brexit Benefits bill reinforce the UK Government’s ability to act in a number of areas which have been clearly devolved for, in some cases, two decades.

It’s not just power that the devolved governments think is being grabbed, but it’s also money.

The Welsh Government has launched a pre-emptive strike pointing out that Conservative promises of funding haven’t been fulfilled.

It said that its analysis shows that Wales will lose around £750m over three years compared to the amount it received under EU aid programmes.

Added to other changes, the Welsh Economy minister, said that it would strip £1bn from the Welsh Government’s budget by 2024.

“This is not “levelling up”, it’s levelling down,” he said.

The UK Government’s calculation is that most people don’t care how the money is distributed as long as it gets to them.

That may be a reasonable calculation to be made here in Wales although it’s still a risky approach because there’s some evidence that it’s pushing otherwise Unionist voters towards becoming “indycurious” and in Scotland it could be the tipping point that leads to a ‘yes’ vote in an independence referendum.

Boris Johnson’s government is formed in his image and he’s shown that he’s up for a fight and willing to gamble.

Recent events surrounding allegations over parties in Downing Street have left him on probation with his own colleagues and with voters. If he fails to level up, he could be levelled out of a job.