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Highway to Hell

January 20th 2023

Buckle up, ladies and gents, for a bumpier than expected ride in Rishi Sunak’s stretch limo tour of the Red Wall.

This week was supposed to be the Prime Minister’s big chance to hand out lots of goodies to Britain’s ‘left behind’ communities. Distributing the second round of the Levelling Up Fund should have meant happy backbenchers, high as hogs on their barrels of pork, and positive headlines. Even without the prospect of receiving his second fixed term penalty notice of this Parliament, it didn’t work out that way for Sunak.

Instead, he found himself immediately under fire on multiple fronts.


Firstly, although there has long been a sense of vagueness around what ‘levelling up’ actually means, it has been near-universally understood in 2019’s Northern, Labour to Tory switching, constituencies as more money for them and less money for the ‘affluent’ South. The outcome of this round of funding - which has handed much more hard cash to the South than to the North (although not on a per-capita basis, as Michael Gove will tell anyone with a camera or a microphone he happens to pass) - flies in the face of that understanding. It has left many Tory MPs in marginal seats feeling embarrassed and like they have nothing at all to show their constituents to demonstrate that a Conservative MP brings home the bacon. As flagship Tory Mayor, Andy Street said - “Fundamentally, this episode is just another example as to why Whitehall's bidding and begging-bowl culture is broken, and the sooner we can decentralise and move to proper fiscal devolution the better.”

The bad feeling on the Tory backbenches has been significantly starker than the Government expected. And this will cause them medium term problems with party discipline and longer-term problems with maintaining their electoral coalition.

Second, the Labour response has resonated. Lisa Nandy’s description of the pots of money as a ‘partial refund’ on cash that has been stripped out of the communities affected is smart. Everyone can see the extent of the degradation of the public sphere over the last decade - a couple of million to open an arts centre might be welcome but it is unlikely to feel like adequate compensation to the councillors and community leaders at the sharp-end.

Thirdly, the continued weakness of the Sunak machine was very much on display. Jetting to the North because you can’t rely on the trains is a bit of a self-own for the PM and doesn’t do much to remedy perceptions of him as out of touch and remote. Failing to anticipate the backlash from his own party doesn’t speak to canny political instincts, either. Getting yourself investigated by Lancashire police because you filmed yourself committing a crime is… sub-optimal.

It’s not that this week’s announcements were a disaster. They weren’t. It’s that they didn’t cut through and got squashed by foes on all sides. And that speaks to how little wiggle room Sunak has, how little patience and goodwill the Conservative Party can rely on. It wasn’t a car crash, but it was a few hours on the hard shoulder waiting for the AA while the kids squabble. And that is not promising for the prospects of a real and sustained Conservative recovery. Because if this is how things feel when they are handing out goodies up and down the country, then it rather begs the question of under what circumstances they will get a better hearing from the public.

Rishi has made it safely back to London. But as he meets with his pit crew - to work out what happens next - he would be forgiven for asking, like Jacinda Adern earlier in the week, whether there’s actually any fuel left in the tank?