In his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Boris Johnson promised to help “those areas that have felt left behind,” by “levelling up” opportunity and wealth from the “overheating southeast.” While not explicitly suggesting that he plans to “level up” the North of England by levelling down London, the message from the city’s former Mayor was clear.
After winning the 2019 general election off the back of so-called “red wall” constituencies, Johnson’s recent interventions are clearly designed to play his former voters in London off against his new voters in the North. There were jibes about “north London dinner parties” and “lefty Islington lawyers”. And the Conservatives’ intentions were made explicit in advance of Johnson’s speech by the former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry MP.
Writing in the Express on Sunday, Berry said that “people who live in London and the south east of England are benefiting from ‘Southern Privilege’,” and that the government must move to end it. Using the language of anti-racism, he went on: “As with the much-discussed ”white privilege’, the problem with southern privilege is that those who have it simply don’t realise.”
This push by Johnson and his outriders to drive a wedge between north and south is concerning Tory politicians in the capital.
Speaking at a conference fringe event, some were keen to dismiss suggestions that the party plans to “level down” the capital. “There’s been a lot of discussions, particularly in the media, that levelling up means levelling down in London and that is complete nonsense, and I can say that as a central London MP,” Cities of London and Westminster MP Nickie Aiken told On London on Sunday. The party’s former candidate for London Mayor Shaun Bailey agreed, telling On London that “the people who are saying levelling up is hurting London is the left. They want to undermine it because they don’t want it to work.”
However, other London Conservatives were less relaxed about the issue. Asked at another fringe event, hosted by London Councils on Tuesday, to defend Berry’s “southern privilege” comments, Minister for London Paul Scully (pictured below, left) insisted that the government’s levelling up agenda was “not about London versus the rest of the country,” though he appeared to acknowledge that Berry’s comments had been unhelpful. “Everyone’s lobbying for their local areas, that’s what constituency MPs do,” he told On London, before adding, “but it is important that we get the language right.”
Elliot Coburn, Conservative MP for Carshalton & Wallington, also appeared to acknowledge the risk the party’s new messaging poses, telling On London, “We will not be able to recover from this pandemic without the economic powerhouse of the City of London. He went on: “That is what we have to be loud and proud about as London Conservative MPs. We must not let that narrative [of levelling down London] take hold.”
This nervousness among London Tories comes after some signs of green shoots for the party in the capital. Although Bailey was decisively defeated by Labour’s re-elected Sadiq Khan, Tories gained support compared with 2016, notably among some ethnic minority communities that had not previously backed them. By sneering at London and speaking of “southern privilege” the Conservatives risk undermining the progress they have made. And once you strip aside the politics, the reality is that if any area is in need of “levelling up” in the current crisis then it is London.
With the city centre essentially shutting down during the pandemic, London has suffered a huge economic shock. The impact of Covid, combined with labour shortages worsened by Brexit, has created a toxic brew for London businesses.
Unemployment is higher in London than any other region in the UK, with child poverty also higher in the capital than anywhere else in the country. And with around one million people in the capital set to be hit by the removal of the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift brought in at the start of the pandemic, but ended by Johnson’s government today, there will be few Londoners feeling the benefit of the PM’s “levelling up” agenda.
Indeed, far from “levelling up” the entire country, Johnson’s plans risk both levelling down London, and as a result, levelling down his party’s own electoral prospects in the city.
Image of Johnson from BBC TV coverage.
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