Boris Johnson’s hopes of rebooting his “levelling up” plan for the nation fell flat this afternoon, after union bosses, businesses and MPs branded the idea “empty rhetoric”.
The prime minister’s speech in the West Midlands was intended as a relaunch for his “build back better” programme, but with little detail and recycled policy announcements it failed to land.
Mr Johnson, who first spoke of his plan to “level up” two years ago, admitted many things were still to be worked out – telling reporters his speech offered “at least the skeleton of what to do”.
The 4,000 word address, which was billed as Mr Johnson’s “vision to level up the United Kingdom”, made three mentions of Scotland.
Boris Johnson can barely keep a straight face when asked about the lack of detail in his 'levelling up speech'…
'There was at least the skeleton of what to do'😳 pic.twitter.com/l2Vdy8d0de
— Dan O'Donoghue (@MrDanDonoghue) July 15, 2021
The prime minister first reaffirmed that HS2 would reach Scotland and then again promised to invest in the A1 that links Scotland to England and the A75 that links Scotland to Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson described his levelling-up vision as an attempt to fix the UK’s “unbalanced economy”, which he said means “for too many people geography turns out to be destiny”.
He reiterated commitments to rolling out gigabit broadband, investing in rail and roads, giving the guarantee of “great education” to all children, and boosting funding for science and technology and tackling crime.
Brexit received just one mention, with a pledge to create jobs by using new freedoms such as the ability to build freeports.
The prime minister sought to ease the jitters of some Conservative MPs by promising his agenda would not mean “levelling down” wealthier areas, in the wake of the loss of the former safe seat of Chesham and Amersham in last month’s by-election.
He said: “Levelling up is not a jam-spreading operation, it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul, it’s not zero sum – it’s win-win for the whole United Kingdom.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer dismissed the speech as “all soundbites and no substance”.
SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford added: “For all the meaningless empty rhetoric, the fact remains that levels of poverty and inequality in the UK have risen to record levels on Boris Johnson’s watch – and planned UK government austerity cuts will make this growing Tory poverty crisis even worse.
“You can’t level up by making millions of people poorer – but that is exactly what will happen as a result of Tory plans to impose a public sector pay freeze and slash Universal Credit by £1,040 for six million families.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady responded to the speech saying: “There has been precious little to show for the Government’s vaunted levelling up agenda, and today’s speech will do little to change that.
“With more than one million children of key worker households in poverty and 3.6 million workers stuck in insecure jobs, it’s time the Government moved on from empty soundbites.
“Ministers must invest in good green jobs in industries of the future, ban zero hours contracts and give all of our key workers a pay rise.
“They must invest in warmer homes, faster broadband and better public transport links across the country. That’s how we level up the UK.”