Mind the rhetoric gap: 'Cakeism', levelling up and the Johnson government.

AuthorQureshi, Amreen

Robert Saunders's focus on 'cakeism' in Johnson's government can also be seen in the current ambitions to 'level up' the country. Since its inception, levelling up has been mired with contradictions, ambiguities, and promises to address regional inequalities without the policy heft to deliver on such ambitions. This illustrates the gap between the rhetoric of levelling up and the everyday realities of regional inequalities. Through this agenda, we can explore the cakeist tendencies of Johnson's leadership, and the consequences for a nation of a government which avoids the difficult choices that have to be made in order to deliver on electoral promises.

Cakeism here can be viewed in two ways. One, in Johnson's refusal to accept trade-offs when faced with complex policy decisions. The other, in Johnson's zeal for announcing ambitious policies that are rarely followed up with any tangible action. Both elements are visible in the delivery of the levelling up agenda.

One of the Conservatives' key electoral pledges in 2019 was to 'level up every part of the UK' to rebalance the economy and tackle regional inequalities. (1) This is a critical issue in the UK, especially as places like the North of England have been at the sharp end of deep regional divides for decades. These divides date to the nineteenth century, and were exacerbated in the twentieth, with the failed attempts by Labour and Conservative governments after World War II to address growing socio-economic disparities, and then the economic policies and reorganisation of local government of the Thatcher governments.

More recently, the global financial crisis, a decade of austerity measures, and Covid-19 have brought further challenges to regions like the North, to which the region has had neither the power nor resource to respond effectively. Research by IPPR North shows that the UK is more regionally divided than any comparable country, due in large part to Whitehall's over-centralisation of resources and power. (2) Yet, the solutions offered by central government under successive agendas, such as the current rhetoric of levelling up, and the Northern Powerhouse which preceded it, have reflected Whitehall policy-makers' lack of the will or policy ambition needed to end these divides.

Regional inequalities prevent places from reaching their full economic potential, and people from the opportunity to lead a good life. They lead to lower educational attainment, poorer health outcomes, and...

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