When interrogated by Times Radio on the meaning of ‘levelling up’, the Prime Minister started singing from the socialists’ hymn sheet.
He agreed it was a programme focusing on “social justice” and “redistribution”. Prefixing justice with identity politics, and conceptualising the economy as a fixed pie to be divided equitably by government, is hardly conservative.
One thing my time on the ground at Conservative Party Conference made clear was that it’s now young conservatives’ duty to ensure ‘levelling up’ doesn’t mean moving left.
The nebulousness of the phrase is a product of the uninspiring parroting of the inherited ‘Build Back Better’ slogan. Appropriating the ideas of a disconnected Davos class, shared with the likes of Jacinda Arden, Joe Biden, and Justin Trudeau (whose parties are antithetical to the nationalist libertarian mandate on which the Tories were elected) makes Boris look like he’s out of ideas.
Instead, the government should be looking to draw on the embarrassment of riches among young conservative commentators and think-tanks.
Recent National Insurance rises were derided by free-marketeers as “economically illiterate”. Add to that a minimum wage rise and precarious inflation rates caused by quantitative easing, and the Chancellor has printed us into quite the pickle.
Clearly there’s no Biggie and Diddy on his Peloton playlist, or Sunak would know “Mo Money [means] Mo Problems”. These policies will alienate not only the Red Wall, but the ‘Generation Rent’ graduates (like me) who are most in need of post-pandemic social mobility. Instead, the Chancellor should break from the planned-economy approach of lockdown and reframe the levelling up vision as one of free-market prosperity and patriotism.
But deeper divisions run beyond material matters. Unresolved social issues threaten to split the vision of post-Brexit Britain. Laugh all you want at Labour’s “Cervix Gate”, but the same spat was happening on the Conference floor for Conservatives.
Having friends in the LGBT+ Conservatives meant I was one of the few granted access to Carrie Johnson’s speech. Her message was one of universal tolerance; but was bogged down by infighting (against the wishes of its organisers). Sensationalist media circled LGBT+ Cons’ and the LGB Alliance’s booths like vultures picking at a carcass. Evidently, the busy schedules of both parties left no room for any productive reconciliation. And the press ate it up, speculating about a pro/anti-trans battle being waged at the heart of the party.
Truly tolerant and humble people don’t want to belong to a movement characterised by a dogma of paradoxical, uncertain aims. In any election, apathy is just as dangerous as enemies; and vague party principles are likely to result in vacancies at the ballot box.
The Party Conference became a missed opportunity to reconcile the ideological chasm between the socially permissive and socially conservative wings of the British right. With this opportunity missed due to gotcha journalism, the ‘levelling up’ agenda continues to exclude voices of principled concern, and it does so at its own peril. Straining under the weight of uncontested contradictions, ‘levelling up’ remains a bough liable to break.
(Of course, we still await an answer to how “Building Back Better” will be both “feminine” and “gender neutral”, per the PM’s G7 gaff.)
Straight man though I am, tearing my time between politics and performing arts has taught me there is no monolithic thought among gay men and women. There are fears and fair criticisms of a self-identification system; and those are to be expected among conservatives, who are temperamentally inclined to favour borders, boundaries, and concrete categories. Not least of all are those coming from the beloved Liz Truss: who succeeded her packed event appearances with a warm reception at LGBTQ+ Cons’ own club outing.
An honest airing of grievances can recalibrate the tone of ‘levelling up’ towards British values of sovereignty, individualism, and localism. Our “nation of shopkeepers” isn’t served by the Conference devolving into a debaucherous knees-up or knives-out faction war. Neither are the identities both groups aim to represent. Both would decry the government paying lip-service to Pride, while having Russia and Qatar as primary fuel suppliers. Moving beyond the media circus and ratifying a commitment to a shared vision allows this vital pressure to be collaboratively applied.
Lots of this is a symptom of the political conditions preceding the last elections. The anti-democratic leanings of other parties left the Conservatives the sole common sense option. Brexit became a rallying cry for a coalition of disaffected Lib Dems, one-nation champions, and civic nationalists to give Boris a landslide electoral victory in 2019. Despite retrospective souring by broken promises under and after lockdown, the electric atmosphere of counting down to exit polls, and watching the venom of Corbynites reduced to tears, remains a great memory for many. Neglecting to confront and settle these divisions, and allow the possibility of changed minds, will undo that project of national sovereignty and free markets along with our definitions of ‘woman’.
It’s time we consolidated the trajectory of the country, accommodating perspectives across the classically liberal axis. Priti promised tough sentencing and strong borders; Javid promised no more lockdowns; and now Boris promises to patch up public finance fiascos. Though faith in our Cabinet’s capacity to enact these changes has waned, it’s up to us to hold them to account, to converse and compromise, and ensure British conservatism regains the reins of the party that shares its namesake. Let’s not let “Cervix Gate” tear the Tory Party in two.