Published:

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Only Michael Gove could take a departmental White Paper and turn it into a government’s manifesto. The paper demonstrates both his abilities and the limits of his persuasive power across government. It is a paper with great ambition, and many great policies, but it would have been more effective from a Prime Minister’s Office than from a Department.

First, let’s talk about why the White Paper matters. As I’ve written on this site before, levelling up is a terrible phrase which gets a terrible reception with voters. They don’t understand what it means, and they don’t like the wording.

But some of the principles outlined this week – the idea that we can make places better to live in, with more opportunities – matter enormously. In towns across the country, too many have felt too ignored for too long. As Will Tanner wrote on this site a couple of days ago, there is also an economic imperative. The country loses out when so many areas underperform.

The policies in the White Paper are also the best opportunity for this government to show it has delivered real change. “Covid was a bit less bad than it could have been, the cost-of-living crisis marginally less awful, and we raised taxes but have now brought them down again” is not, to me, a compelling proposition at the next election. Here are the improvements in your area, and here’s the plan for the next five years, is better.

The paper, which has deep and serious analysis, and tangible metrics, understands this (although I seem to be the only person who enjoyed the detour into Jericho and Babylon). In the areas Gove’s department controls, in particular, it has also proposed radical and important policies.

Long term, the most significant is the commitment to greater devolution. I was once a classic, centralising political adviser who thought that very clever people in Westminster should control everything (a bit like most people in the Treasury). I’m now an equally classic political adviser who has been wearied by the limits of what any central government can achieve, and who understands that ‘joined up government’, building from the genuine demands of the people, requires local decision making.

Conservative governments’ rhetoric on devolution has long outstripped the reality, but the white paper outlines real powers that more devolution will bring and offers the promise of more. Yes, it continues the journey of previous administrations – but this seems to me a good thing. School reform, which I worked on in 2010, was an acceleration of the academy programme initiated by Tony Blair. That’s why it stuck.

The shift of R&D funding outside the golden triangle (London, Oxford, Cambridge) also matters, though there’s a lot of detail needed on how it will be spent. We should be getting at least one university significantly up the global R&D rankings through targeted investment, and we should be aligning R&D from the public sector better with the private sector.

Neither of these, of course, are election winning policies. The public are sceptical about devolution in particular. But they’re important, substantive shifts and I think they will be very hard to reverse.

Shorter term, there is a wholly necessary and sensible focus on civic pride – something which I/Public First have long argued for. The white paper has managed to both secure devolution of the Shared Prosperity Fund, and avoid it being so tightly constrained by Treasury that it can’t be spent on local priorities.

There is a consistent focus on what matters to people – high streets, crime, community, green spaces. If (big if) the policies in the white paper are delivered rapidly and effectively, the Government has just about enough time to explain to people across the country what levelling up was about, and why it is helping their area.

But there are also a number of areas where the scale of the stated ambition, and the policies, diverge. Most obvious is the first section on productivity and private sector investment – which is incredibly disappointing. It is a mish mash of previously announced policies which do not begin to address the scale of the challenge.

Aside from the increase in R&D spend, it is hard to pinpoint a big new idea which is likely to significantly change business behaviour. This must be the Treasury’s refusal to play ball. I genuinely do not understand, for example, why they won’t give certainty over the super-deduction and make it longer term.

In general, few government departments seem, to me, to have come up with much more than a rehashed list of policies that were already in the works or due to be announced. Their approach to devolving decision making or rebalancing spending away from the South East is also far from uniform.

This is where the ability of a single government department to drive change across Whitehall stutters. Without a very strong Downing Street, able to prioritise and drive policy, fiefdoms will always remain. With the Prime Minister now at odds with his Chancellor on policy but too weak to impose his will on the Treasury, a fully coherent approach is impossible. .

Meanwhile most irritating, to me, is schools and skills. The schools target – for 90 per cent of children to reach the expected standard in reading, writing, and maths by 2030 – is wonderful, but I have no idea from the paper how it is supposed to be achieved.

The skills target, meanwhile, is unambitious. I make it as 0.3 per cent more of the population doing skills training every year. If the entire government were really behind levelling up, they’d throw everything behind the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, which gives people the money and colleges and universities the incentive to put on proper training courses for everyone.

Where does that leave us? A paper which is brilliant in its ambition and analysis, and which has devised serious policies under a serious secretary of state. It is also a paper that has truly understood the priorities of people and – if delivery is on track – could improve large numbers of places very rapidly.

But it is necessarily limited by the deep policy tensions between the Treasury and Downing Street, and the inability to force all departments to row together. Will it stand the test of time? Yes, I think much of it will – particularly on devolution and R&D. Can some of its policies help win an election? Again, yes. But for as long as the leaders of the Government are divided, even the best reforming minister I have ever seen cannot paper over the cracks.