UK’s embattled Johnson seeks reset with major economic plan

Jill Lawless
Associated Press

London – The British government set out plans Wednesday to shift power and wealth to the left-behind regions of the country, a long-standing promise to the working-class voters who helped put Prime Minister Boris Johnson in office.

The announcement came as Johnson tries to turn the page on allegations of pandemic rule-breaking that have caused public anger and stirred discontent inside his governing Conservative Party. Three more Conservative lawmakers turned against their leader on Wednesday, adding to a steady drip of opposition within his party that shows no signs of stopping.

Johnson’s Conservative government was elected in 2019 on a pledge to “level up” one of Europe’s most regionally unequal countries by improving transport links, infrastructure and economic opportunities in swaths of the country hit by shuttered industries and public funding cuts.

Tobias Ellwood the British Conservative Party MP for Bournemouth East, who has said he is sending a no-confidence letter challenging the leadership of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson amidst the scandal over lockdown-breaching parties held at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic, walks followed by anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray next to the Houses of Parliament in London, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.

The government fleshed out that promise Wednesday with details of plans to invest in public transport, education, digital connectivity and R&D in poorer regions, mostly in central and northern England, by 2030. It also said more regions will get elected mayors with substantial powers, and derelict industrial sites will be targeted for major regeneration projects.

“Our economy has been like a jet propelled by only one engine,” Michael Gove, the Cabinet minister in charge of the levelling up plan, said in the House of Commons. “For every local success, there is a story of scarring and stagnation elsewhere. And that has to change.”

The sweeping plan, which runs more than 300 pages, promises everything from better bus services and healthier school meals to “innovation accelerators” to create British versions of Silicon Valley.

The government’s opponents pointed out that many of the measures had been previously announced and came without new funding attached. Labour Party communities spokeswoman Lisa Nandy called the plan “a shopping list of recycled policies.”

“Seriously, is this it?” she asked.

Britain has long had deep regional divides, with money and wealth concentrated in London and the south of England, while heavy industry dominated the north. The closure of mines and factories as the U.K. moved from industrial powerhouse to service-based economy in recent decades hit those areas hard. The divide grew wider when Conservative-led governments slashed public spending to curb a ballooning deficit after the 2008 global financial crisis. Poorer areas that were most dependent on state funds suffered the biggest hit.

Former industrial cities in England such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, along with Glasgow in Scotland, have done much to reinvent themselves as economic, cultural and creative hotbeds, but many smaller towns and cities are still scarred by poverty, poor education and high unemployment.

Gove said Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union had been “a wake-up call” by voters in neglected areas.

“As well as a clear commandment to leave the European Union, it was also a way of saying to people in (Parliament’s postcode) SW1, people like me, ‘Look, it’s vital that you change the economic model of this country,’” he said.

Johnson helped lead the Brexit referendum campaign and went on to win over voters in “red wall” areas – former industrialized towns that had long been Labour strongholds.

Johnson hopes the long-awaited “levelling-up” plans will help him maintain “red wall” support, and provide some respite from the scandal over lockdown-breaching parties held in his office during the pandemic. Police are investigating a dozen gatherings that may have breached coronavirus restrictions, and a senior civil servant’s report this week slammed “failures of leadership and judgment” in the prime minister’s office.

Johnson has apologized and promised to overhaul his office and regain public trust. But his opponents – including some Conservatives – are calling for him to resign for allowing staff to party while millions in Britain endured isolation to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

The party has a history of ousting leaders once they become liabilities, and Johnson could yet face a no-confidence vote from his own side. Under party rules, such a vote is triggered if 15% of party lawmakers – currently 54 people – write letters calling for one.

About a dozen Tory lawmakers have called publicly for Johnson to go, though more have likely submitted letters – including three on Wednesday.

Tobias Ellwood, who heads Parliament’s powerful defense committee, said Wednesday he would be sending a no-confidence letter because “it’s time to resolve this completely so the party can get back to governing.”

Conservative legislator Anthony Mangnall said on Twitter that Johnson’s “actions and mistruths are overshadowing the extraordinary work of so many excellent ministers and colleagues.”

Tory member of Parliament Gary Streeter also said he had sent in a letter.

“I cannot reconcile the pain and sacrifice of the vast majority of the British Public during lockdown with the attitude and activities of those working in Downing Street,” he wrote on Facebook.