The Tories’ plan to ‘level up’ Britain can’t be taken seriously. Here’s why | Aditya Chakrabortty

Premier League

Sweet reader, do you long for light relief? Well, I have just the thing! A quiz. Below are three statements made by a leading politician in the not-so-distant past that would be unimaginable from any government frontbencher in these days of “levelling up”. So, which throwback said them?

1) “A pound spent in Croydon is of far more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde.”

Who could that be – Chuka Umunna?

2) “The city is the best place to exchange ideas. It is the best place for economic activity. People in cities live longer than people who live in the countryside; they do. They are better educated … They are better fed, and there are many more opportunities for reproduction in the city than the countryside. It is absolutely true.”

Nick Clegg?

3) “London is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the orangutan … we’re proud of that.”

David Cameron?

How did you fare? Since this is a column, not a detective novel, let’s cut the suspense and reveal the answers:

1) Was said by Boris Johnson in 2012, although today he frets: “By turbocharging … London and the south-east, you drive prices even higher and you force more and more people to move to the same expensive areas.”

2) Again, Johnson – who now bemoans that “for too many people, geography turns out to be destiny”.

3) Guess who? Yes, the prime minister! Who at last week’s Tory party conference deplored how “we have one of the most imbalanced societies and lop-sided economies”.

You could write a book on the vast gulf between that first set of quotes and the second. They are not just in affable, murmuring disagreement with each other: they are diametrically opposed philosophies.

One side of the dispute says: let the rich get richer while the rest of us scrabble for their crumbs, let the oligarchs rule London and allow the capital to lord it over other cities and towns. The other proposes: stop the country being overwhelmed by the needs, desires and fashions of its south-eastern corner, share round wealth and power, and – to coin a phrase – level up.

Yet these rival projects were given voice by one man – and not in his guise as a spaff-first-think-later columnist, but as an elected politician. While the first argument may have been voiced by Johnson as mayor of London, it goes well beyond municipal boosterism. This isn’t boilerplate about London as “the greatest city in the world”; it is a heavily redacted version of the capital, excised of its housing crisis and kids in poverty. And it expresses a worldview straight out of Matthew: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

That Johnson bears no resemblance to the one we have today, champion of equality and tribune of the workers. So either he disavows everything he said on the subject until quite recently, or he is lying now. Which is it? And what does it say about British politics that it is now beholden to a complete skin-shedder?

“So what?” you may say. This is Mr Two Columns we’re talking about here. Trolley is as trolley does. This is the guy who supported Theresa May’s Brexit, then rubbished it, then struck his own deal with Brussels and now wants an entirely new arrangement over Northern Ireland. Except if there’s one political project that Johnson wants to be defined by, it’s levelling up. It was the great theme of last week’s Conservative bacchanal, at which Michael Gove, our new secretary of state for levelling up, declared the agenda “do or die”. And as the politico-media class always does when faced with a powerful man speaking in platitudes, they took it all very seriously.

The Mail on Sunday calls levelling up “as bold as anything Maggie ever tried”, the BBC commissions hours of airtime and the thinktanks dutifully publish their reports. The sight is akin to watching some of our finest minds wallpapering over a gigantic black hole. For all the government departments and No 10 delivery units devoted to the programme, exactly what it is, how it is to be implemented and how its success is to be measured – all this remains undefined, nearly two years into this administration.

When a bright young Tory, Neil O’Brien, is appointed chief thinker on the subject, the press lavishes him with superlatives. “As close to the perfect candidate as you could get,” pronounces the Economist. Never mentioned is that while O’Brien ran Policy Exchange, David Cameron’s favourite thinktank, it published a paper in 2008 arguing that struggling northern cities should go to the urban equivalent of Dignitas, and their residents move to London: “For people in regions that do not neighbour London this has an obvious and unavoidable implication: if you want to share in London’s success, you may have to move to London … As the old phrase goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Less levelling up than migrating down. Yet O’Brien defended the paper, saying it had been misunderstood by the press, even after Cameron called for its author to be shipped off to Australia.

My argument here isn’t with O’Brien, whom I liked when we met courtesy of the BBC for a debate in which I argued for greater regional equality, while he called London “the goose that lays the golden egg”. I can respect his point of view, which was until very recently the standard Conservative line. But there’s the rub: it is a rightwing argument. As a new report from the Town and Country Planning Association demonstrates, the government’s planning model undermines the levelling-up promise, eroding the local democracy it is supposed to safeguard. It cannot be dressed up as being about social justice or “left on economics, right on culture” or any of those other terms used to enable the Tories to hold on to their new voters in the north. Some of the best thinking on regional development is being done on the left, not the right, and not in Westminster but Cardiff, where ministers are trying to combine local procurement, Preston-style, with protecting the everyday economy.

I am not shocked to see politicians changing their clothes, but there is something deeply wrong with a political and media culture that merely applauds each costume change; that is enthralled when George Osborne launches a “northern powerhouse”, yet never asks why at the end of it all more public sector jobs were created in London, even while they were cut in the north, while far more pounds a head were still spent on the transport needs of the capital. It’s a culture that breathlessly reports each rally of the Brexit negotiations without acknowledging the bad faith in which Johnson and David Frost lumbered on to the court; that deplores Trumpian post-truth politics, while ignoring the role of the media and the rest of society in auditing politicians’ lies.

No doubt sceptics like me will be confounded when the white paper on levelling up is published and ties up all the many loose ends. But I am not so sure. To develop its work, the Cabinet Office last month corralled a bunch of top-flight academics and experts from across western Europe. The grand round table was called “What do we mean by ‘levelling up’?” As shoulder-shruggingly, head-scratchingly basic as that. Perhaps next time No 10 will hold an awayday to discuss Emperor Johnson’s new clothes.