More than three years after malign fun-fur mascot Boris Johnson first gibbered out the catchphrase, we finally have incontrovertible evidence of what “levelling up” actually is. For its duration, Johnson’s government had a flagship policy that it couldn’t have defined even if it hadn’t been drunk on the contents of a wheelie suitcase. Levelling up now turns out to be a sort of inter-constituency Squid Game, in which MPs who voted for various stripes of self-harm are now forced into trial-by-combat against each other in the hope of appealing to the caprices of shadowy gamesmaster Michael Gove. Arguably there’s an ironic wit to the format – a sort of handout for the anti-handout party, designed solely to inadequately mitigate the effects of cuts made largely by that same party. The players seem quite upset about it now, but are of course free to terminate the game if the majority votes to do so.
Or as one Conservative MP who missed out fumed yesterday: “I’ve got shops without roofs and whole streets of boarded-up houses and some people are getting cash for adventure golf.” Which is, by coincidence, exactly the picture in the political glossary next to the phrase “sunlit uplands”. Another Tory MP described the policy delivery as “a fuck-up of epic proportions”, casting it as the Stalingrad of not securing a planetarium for your northern marginal.
Having attempted to sell this policy round the country during a somewhat excruciating day yesterday, luxury menswear influencer Rishi Sunak faced a law enforcement probe for removing his seatbelt to film a video for his Insta, as part of the police’s ruthless commitment to rooting out trivial wrongdoing so that people mind less when another one of them is revealed to be a rapist. I haven’t got a huge amount to add to that sentence as an indicator of where we are on various fronts. Still, now that Sunak has picked up his second penalty notice inside a year, the suggestion must be that he is on a pathway of reoffending and should submit to personal rehabilitation lessons with justice secretary Dominic Raab, who is himself facing an investigation on eight formal complaints of bullying. Again, we are where we are.
You have to wonder if Sunak makes the most credible salesman for the specific allocation of cash in this second round of disbursement, given that he took the sensationally odd decision to be filmed during the leadership campaign in July last year telling Tory members in Tunbridge Wells: “I managed to start changing the funding formulas to make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserved. We inherited a bunch of formulas from Labour that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas and that needed to be undone. I started the work of undoing that.”
Yesterday found Sunak in only marginally less politically imbecilic mode. I can’t personally get over-exercised about senior politicians making travel time-savings that the rest of us should obviously avoid. But Sunak’s private jet usage has got plenty of backs up, and on a political level feeds unfortunately into the impression that he is what he is: a man who can use private jets. Labour accused the prime minister of behaving “like an A-list celeb” for flying to Blackpool – something A-list celebs are forever doing, of course. I believe Sunak’s RAF flight was kept in a holding pattern while The Rock was given runway priority to hasten his latest trip to play the coin pushers on the Central Pier.
“I travel around so I can do lots of things in one day,” Sunak shot back when pushed on his arrangements. “I’m not travelling around just for my own enjoyment, although this is very enjoyable, of course.” Mm. Spoken like a man whose high-end Santa Monica residence is located in a complex that includes a pet spa. (I haven’t fully checked the levelling-up fund payouts for pet spas, but assume Guildford was successful in its bid for one.)
In general, though, do you care for Sunak’s tone? He seems to have just the two speeds: dewy-eyed prefect delivering a supposedly inspirational speech to much, much younger children; and high-financier unable to fully hide his impatience that he should be required to answer questions from lesser mortals. Neither seems immediately obviously likely to endear him to the British public. Perhaps he’s slightly helped by being up against Keir Starmer, who delivers every statement like his next one is going to be “And had you thought of a preferred wood for the casket?”
Any more pratfalls left in the tank on the PM’s day out and about? At least one, with the PM explaining he wanted to cut taxes but couldn’t, as his audience knew. “You’re not idiots,” he breezed. “You know what’s happened.” “Besides,” he went on, “when I was chancellor I also really preferred it when the prime minister didn’t comment on tax policy.”
Unfortunately for the “idiots”, the chancellor isn’t talking about tax cuts either. Instead, Jeremy Hunt could be found this week leaning fully into the latte-sipping insult his side have long weaponised, by making his own painful social media video in which he explained inflation to the masses via the medium of him ordering a flat white. Is this necessary? I know Jeremy likes to think of himself as one of Britain’s most advanced entrepreneurial brains – he ran a course-listing directory in civilian life – but we must at least consider the possibility that British people currently get a hard lesson in inflation every time they do a shop.
Anyway: on to the idiots. Only in this climate of palpable executive inadequacy could we be reading seemingly bi-weekly stories that comebacks are being planned not just by Boris Johnson, but also Liz Truss – or at least by what we’ll kindly call Liz Truss’s “ideas”, with a parliamentary group established this week with the express aim of the advancement thereof. Truss herself and her former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng have both set up firms to manage their next steps, while Jacob Rees-Mogg is said to be joining GB News to host his own show. Johnson is being Johnson, and seems well on the way to persuading far too many MPs to give their abusive relationship with him another chance.
Behold, the architects of some of the most short-termist and self-harming policies of recent times (tough field), somehow sailing on regardless to further enrichment while everyone else lives in their mess. As for their various supporters, you have to marvel mirthlessly at the capacity for some serially imploding factions of the Conservative party to believe that their destructive ideas have simply not been done properly yet. The Tory tankies are on the march; do batten your hatches accordingly.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist