From the very first debate in the contest to become the new leader of the Conservative Party and Britain’s next Prime Minister, foreign secretary Liz Truss has fed anti-London prejudice to help woo the Tory party members whose votes she needs to win the keys to Number 10.
It has not been the biggest weapon in her arsenal but she has clearly deduced that sniping at the capital and invoking hostile populist stereotypes about the city and its people can usefully augment her headline pledges to cut taxes, be meaner to migrants, scrap EU rules and “realise the post-Brexit opportunities”.
Last night in Leeds, at the first leadership hustings held before an audience composed solely of Conservative members, Truss said, “I will get Northern Powerhouse Rail built” and also “work to fix” Leeds getting its own metro system.
The Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) pledge, reported in advance of the hustings by Northern Agenda, mattered mostly for promising to reverse Boris Johnson’s scaling back of plans to upgrade the rail network serving Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield.
But it was also significant for being made after Truss had claimed during Monday’s BBC debate in Stoke that the government’s criteria for making investment decisions “favour London” and that, for her, “levelling up” is “about changing the Treasury investment rules so they’re fair across the country”.
The contention that those Treasury rules, enshrined within what is known as The Green Book, place areas outside the capital at a disadvantage is quite often made, even once accepted as fact by the BBC, but has also been strongly contested.
Those who’ve adhered to it include Truss’s rival Rishi Sunak, but their shared view has been challenged both by think tank Centre for Cities, which concluded that a lack of government strategy is what’s really impeding “levelling up”, and by Arup, which argued that the framework was already flexible enough to accommodate “levelling up” priorities and to favour spending in less well-off areas.
During the BBC debate Truss defended her preference for cutting taxes and increasing borrowing as the best way to stimulate the economy by arguing that “crashing the economy in order to pay a debt back quicker” would be “a massive mistake” – and here she turned and looked pointedly at Sunak – “a mistake that won’t just be felt by people living in London. It will be felt by people in towns and cities right across the United Kingdom” (from 18:15).
Thus did the woman born and raised in Paisley and Leeds, who voted Remain but now insists she regrets it, seek to portray her rival, the Leave-voting former Chancellor, as a slick-suited de facto member of the “metropolitan elite” and herself as someone who will stick up for the “left behind” and “red wall” places that swing behind the Conservatives in 2019.
As for ensuring that Leeds gets a metro system and Northern Powerhouse Rail is, after all, delivered in full, not to mention paying back all that extra debt she intends to run up, Truss had better hope her policies don’t level down the capital – after all, that’s where the money to pay for her spend-and-borrow policies is going to come from.
Image of Liz Truss from BBC leadership debate.
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