Published:

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The Conservatives should aspire to be a national party for those who work hard, but its future powerbase should lie in provincial Britain. With the publication of the Levelling-Up White Paper this week we’ll get a sense for whether this is a viable ambition.

Since Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien took over levelling-up strategy – with a new Department under their management – the Government has been asking the right questions and saying the right things. The white paper will reflect this.

We need to be realistic about its contents. While there’ll surely be new policy announcements, white papers are essentially strategy documents and it’s likely to feel such. The backdrop to the launch is a weak economy and massive accumulated debt; we therefore obviously won’t see huge sums of new money. That’s not terminal: what matters more is how Government money is diverted to this strategy from other places.

The pre-briefing has been encouraging: the Government is said to be encouraging greater devolution, shifting more Government jobs outside London, and rebalancing spending on culture across the country. It’s hard to imagine there won’t be new policies on high streets, crime and anti-social behaviour and skills and retraining; these are the public’s priorities. We’ll know tomorrow.

However, those of us that believe in a provincial pivot will be asking a more fundamental question: does it look like levelling-up is going to be the admirable work of one small Government Department, or does it look like levelling-up will define the Government’s economic and social policies for the next decade? While we’ll certainly get a sense for the answer tomorrow, we’ll only know for sure later in the year.

We’ll judge the Government on both style and substance. Thinking about style first, if a provincial pivot is going to happen, we should expect the language of levelling-up to begin to dominate the way Conservatives talk about the economy – most obviously in future Budgets. To date, there have been mixed signals. In some ways, the party has gone backwards in recent years; when Nick Timothy was in No 10, with the Government’s talk of an industrial strategy, it felt like the provincial economy was in the mainstream of Government thinking. We need the same again now.

Similarly, as the Government talks about levelling-up as if its integral to economic policy, we should hopefully hear less about the extremes of provincial economic failure. To be clear, there are parts of the country – particularly in the post-industrial North – which certainly need economic and social help. But these areas need special attention; they should not define the Government’s overall economic and social mission. Levelling-up should be about Derby as much as it should be about Redcar.

Thinking about substance, beyond what the Government announces in the white paper, if the Conservatives are serious about levelling-up, two policy streams come immediately to mind, which I have written about here briefly before.

First, radical devolution – not just local control over spending decisions, but over tax-raising and, crucially, tax-cutting powers. From the pre-briefing, it seems devolution will be a big part of the white paper; while it seems unlikely that they will recommend what we might call “American-style federalism”, we should hope there are signs this is the direction of travel.

Second, substantially, a new focus on HE and FE. Too many Conservatives pointlessly trash HE, arguing that too many young people go to university and that there are too many courses. Too often, this doesn’t sound like a policy position, just pointless moaning. If we’re going to successfully level-up the country, we need an expansion of both HE and FE so that there are more high-qualified people ready to work in areas where the economy is weak. Dominic Cummings was briefly all over this at No 10; it needs renewed attention.

The publication of the white paper ought to be the beginning of a process, not the end; it should mark the start of a provincial pivot in earnest. With the party’s track record, it’s hard not to worry: the party has a tendency to think that a few announcements mean that a policy stream is “done” – and on to the next thing. You can imagine that levelling-up slowly loses steam, with the Department wrapped-up into another. It’s vital that this doesn’t happen.