HS2 questions point to broader reckoning for ‘levelling up’, and Rishi Sunak

The phrase “levelling up” entered the British lexicon during the political fit of pique of the 2019 general election. It was a political pledge created by and for former prime minister Boris Johnson as he seized on the ferment stoked by the Brexit campaign. 

Of course, the commitment to tackling regional disparity helped Johnson’s government secure a landslide victory at the 2019 election, winning traditionally Labour-held seats in the north of England and the midlands. But the slogan was, from the start, deliberately slippery — intended to subvert anti-Westminster feelings for Boris Johnson’s own political ends.

In fact, levelling up was Johnsonianism distilled: a catchy slogan, a few billion quid and a monument to point to at the end of it all. It meant high-spending, headline-grabbing infrastructure projects. This aspect of Johnson’s political nature was summed up neatly by Dominic Cummings in an interview for the New York Magazine last year: “The only thing he was really interested in — genuinely excited about — was looking at maps. Where could he order the building of things?”.

In short: as long as shovels were in the ground, Johnson thought he was winning. The bidding war incited by the levelling up project would see communities pitted against each other, pining for Johnson’s attention. The PM would then tour the country, pointing to the physical markers of his success. His legacy would be writ in stone across Britain’s high streets. “Thank you Boris”, Britain would collectively bay.

But, bluster aside, the Conservative party’s political responsibility when it came to “levelling up” remained profound. Many of Johnson’s converts in 2019 placed their trust in the Conservatives for the first time and, as PM therefore, Johnson needed to make real gains to ensure such voters didn’t swing back to Starmer’s Labour. Thus, just as Brexit was declared “done” in 2020, levelling up was newly sold as Johnson’s “defining mission”. 

However, in mid-2022, questions arose over how “levelling up” would survive the upending of its prime patron. And the project emerged as a key talking point during last summer’s Conservative leadership contest. 

It was clear that Liz Truss’ small state and low tax vision was failing to match the political energy Johnson had piled into the scheme; but Rishi Sunak’s fiscal conscientiousness, likewise, had been viewed as a roadblock to the project while at the Treasury. (The video of the soon-to-be runner-up boasting about how he had fiddled funding formulas to take money out of “deprived urban areas” did not help his case).

In this way, while the very idea of big-spending infrastructure projects was central to Johnsonianism, “levelling up” — as a high-spending creed — appeared to jar with Sunak’s most basic political instincts. 

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the so-called “levelling up agenda” has not featured prominently during Sunak’s premiership. Spiralling crises around industrial relations, public services and illegal migration have also squandered much of the PM’s political energy.

But this is not to say that Sunak has escaped criticism for failing to make strides on regional disparity. Indeed, after the last round of levelling up funding in January, analysis found that large sums of the headline £2.1 billion funding package were going to areas with relatively low levels of deprivation. It also highlighted that, of the £1.9 billion of spending that could be linked to individual constituencies, £1.2 billion — around 63 per cent — had gone to seats held by Conservative MPs.

It seemed to expose, (1), levelling up as a mere electoral gambit and, (2), Sunak’s abjuration on the stated vision of his predecessor-but-one. Combine this with stories that Conservative MPs have been told to use phrases such as “stepping up”, “gauging up” or “enhancing communities” in lieu of “levelling up”, and Sunak himself seems far from taken by the project. 

With this debate rumbling on in the background, the report which appeared in the Independent this week, suggesting HS2’s second leg from Birmingham to Manchester could be shelved, begs some important questions. Indeed, it comes after the government was criticised for quietly slipping out news that work on the leg between Birmingham and Crewe was being put on hold in March. 

As for the government’s line on the report, Home Office minister Chris Philp insisted this morning that “the levelling up agenda is steaming ahead”. But he conspicuously refused to commit his government to HS2’s northern leg, viewed by many as integral to the project.

To be sure: the government’s flagship high-speed rail project predates the “levelling up” slogan. In fact, it was in 2012 that the then-transport secretary Justine Greening first announced Britain was to have a new high-speed rail network composed of a Y-shape with stations in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and the East Midlands.

It was also the central component of former chancellor George Osborne’s Northern powerhouse idea. Osborne said in 2014: “The reality is that HS2 is a vital investment. It’s essential capacity and it will change the economic geography of the country. It will mean that London and Manchester are just an hour apart”.

“We’ve done a lot — but we must do much more to connect our northern cities”.

Of course, Osborne’s “Northern powerhouse” project is in essence the same as that which drives the levelling up agenda (minus some of the Johnsonian rhetoric). In fact, in recent years, HS2 has become symbolic of what the government’s levelling-up agenda could mean in practice — with its various cutbacks and delays interpreted in turn as microcosmic indications of the vision’s broader failure. 

Today, George Osborne is the host of a new political podcast with Ed Balls, and he used his new centrist soapbox to call the reported plans to axe HS2’s northern leg a “mistake” and a “real, real tragedy”. 

It also seems to be a clear diving line with Labour, with shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh explaining: “Labour will call time on 13 years of failure, and deliver the infrastructure fit for the century ahead”.

Indeed, the Independent’s revelations on HS2 come in the same week new shadow levelling up secretary Angela Rayner branded the Conservative version of levelling up a “sham and a scam” in a speech to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference in Liverpool. 

Rayner said: “The mask has slipped, and the public has seen the truth – warm words and politically driven handouts won’t touch the sides. An empty slogan won’t pay decent wages. False promises won’t build secure homes. And a sound bite won’t empower communities”.

Under Keir’s Starmer leadership, Labour has sought to embrace the central message of the levelling up agenda. Sir Keir has, for example, announced plans for a new “take back control”, intended to give new powers to communities; and the party’s Green Prosperity Plan has been heralded as a way of spreading opportunity throughout the country on renewables.

Moreover, Rayner spent Monday trying to tie the levelling up ideal to Labour’s pitch on workers rights, which she specialised in in her old brief as shadow secretary of state for the future of work. She said: “Labour has a comprehensive plan to create good jobs across the entire country and raise living standards for all through our New Deal for Working People”.

The problem for Sunak, therefore, is that the levelling up slogan remains salient and hence ready to be stolen by Labour. But he has, in essence, vacated the territory founded by his predecessor-but-one — allowing the political energy the Conservative Party stoked and failed to harness to flow into other channels. 

So while Johnson was able to make levelling up central to his political brand, for Sunak, it’s fast becoming a vulnerability.

And with HS2 only ever raised by the media when reports are circulating that it is being scaled back, Labour has a physical marker (or lack thereof) of Conservative failure: a full 13 years of it.