18 May 2022

The idea of moving the Lords to Stoke is pointless ‘Levelling Up signalling’


God, but this latest spat between Michael Gove and the Lord Speaker over whether or not the Upper House should decamp to the Red Wall is depressing, isn’t it?

The whole thing is absurd. No Secretary of State gets to issue decrees to Parliament about where it does or does not sit. Gove surely knows this.

It is also just an abysmal proposal. As I set out the last time this idea was getting kicked around, there is essentially no precedent for a country dividing its legislature between two different cities. It would foul the operation of Parliament, and make it even harder for the Government to appoint peers to ministerial positions. Gove probably knows this, too.

Yet he sent his letter anyway, and the court stenographers are out trying to confect a class conflict out of it. Because there is nothing to ‘levelling up’, except a department, and Boris Johnson’s apparent delusion that the reason the North/South Divide has persisted is because his predecessors were too ‘stupid’ to do anything about it.

It’s a gesture. Gesture is the Johnsonian style. Last week, he ordered the Cabinet up to Stoke-on-Trent. Why? It might have provided some eye-catching backdrops to a major announcement, but there was no major announcement. The change of scene was the sum of the exercise. And that’s all that moving the Lords would amount to: a change of backdrop.

How has it come to this? Only a few years ago, Gove was one of the boldest and most energetic members of David Cameron’s Cabinet. As Education Secretary, he took a firm grip of a vital policy area which Conservatives tend to neglect (and have indeed neglected since he left the post). If you had to pick someone to give ‘levelling up’ a square go, he wouldn’t have seemed a bad choice.

Perhaps he has simply been set an impossible mission, given that any root-and-branch reorientation of the British economy would almost certainly need to be led by the Treasury. 

Or maybe Gove’s attentions are now just spread too thin. He is in formal charge not just of the ‘levelling up agenda’ (such as it is) but also meeting the housing crisis and overseeing the Government’s strategy for strengthening the Union (such as it is). 

Each of these is a hugely important area of responsibility which deserves to have its own dedicated leadership. It is too much to expect of even the most able minister to advance an imaginative, energetic, and comprehensive programme on three such broad fronts at the same time.

Instead, the Government isn’t really advancing on any of them. Gove’s principle decision since taking over the housing brief has been scrapping the Planning Bill which his predecessor, Robert Jenrick, was prepared to fight for. The passage of Street Votes, although welcome, is no substitute.

As for the Union strategy, there doesn’t seem to be one, not least because DLUHC keep blocking efforts by other departments to make use of the new powers won with such controversy by passing the UK Internal Market Act (UKIMA). 

Instead, there is gridlock and frustration as Gove, the man in charge of the Government’s approach to the Union, clashes over and over again with other ministers and departments who want to take a more pro-active (or ‘muscular’) approach, both to taking on the separatists and rebuilding the British state’s footprint in the devolved territories.

(What he thinks of Liz Truss’s proposals to tear up his handiwork in Northern Ireland, one can only imagine.)

Ultimately, the responsibility for this situation rests not with Gove, but with Johnson. So sprawling a departmental empire as DLUHC was always doomed to become an exercise in keeping the plates spinning. No Housing Secretary could deliver a Planning Bill if his Prime Minister wasn’t prepared to fight for it. Johnson didn’t have to sack the architect of his original Union strategy and replace him with a man who disagreed with it.

So too with ‘levelling up’. The idea, if it qualifies as an idea – the phrase? the meme? – is Johnson’s. In the first instance, it was his job to give at least a basic shape to it. Had he done so, putting one of the Cabinet’s more active members in charge, properly empowered and properly focused, might have paid dividends.

But there was nothing there, even before a pandemic and a recession drained the coffers that might have paid for the plan he never had. So instead, we get this pointless, ridiculous, demeaning stuff about pretending we’re going to do something as stupid as splitting Parliament between two cities.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.