‘Yeast. Magic sauce!’ went the PM as he lost a one-man game of Articulate | Zoe Williams
Some background to the prime minister’s speech on Thursday: it was billed as a “major” speech, an almighty drop from the powerhouse of his intellect. There were rumours that he’d been working on it all week. Later, counter-rumours that he was only saying that to get out of the foxhole in which he’d been hiding from the culture wars.
All of this, comically, left the workshy Johnson with a speech to give, though at least by the time he started there was nobody left who thought he’d been working on it all week. Silver linings, prime minister! Or at the Romans would say, silverus lineynus!
As he gave his lackadaisical account of the nation’s stark inequalities, his own boredom bounced off the lectern. It’s an outrage, he said, that someone in Glasgow or Blackpool had 10 years less on this planet than someone in Rutland. “I don’t know what they do in Rutland to live to these prodigious ages … Who knows?”
Well, loads of people know: Michael Marmot knows, so does Danny Dorling, so does everybody who has ever read a book or understood a graph. They live to prodigious ages by having relatively high incomes, secure housing, functioning public services, air quality, etc. Why on earth would a person attempt a speech on health inequality with absolutely no idea what is driving it? Here’s the thing: he made this big pantomime of ignorance because he was halfway to a joke in which Rutland sounds a bit like “rutting” and its people stay alive by having sex. I cannot prove this. Yet I know it.
Any excuse to get off the depressing territory of his own choosing: there are areas of the UK that are less productive than East Germany – “You remember East Germany, with their funny little cars and fake coffee?” He seemed astonished that Germany had succeeded in levelling up where the UK had not. Is it that amazing, though? They seem to have quite a coherent policy agenda, whereas we have a man who had some coffee once in 1990 that didn’t taste very nice, and cannot understand how a country got from there to liveable wages. They’re actually not that liveable, they’re just better than ours; but that’s another story.
The plan, though, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what you really want to hear: first, they’re going to fight crime, and have already driven more than a 1,000 county lines drugs gangs out of business. It’s unclear how this policy creates opportunities, unless the plan is to retrain dealers in some other business.
The tone was set, one of complete randomness; they’re going to do this and that; build yay-many hospitals; “invest in all sorts of things”; deal with the NHS’s backlog of elective surgeries; and invest in schoolchildren to the tune of £3bn. What was missing, apart from the extra £12bn that the education recovery commissioner recommended, was a through-line. How did any of these announcements relate to levelling up? It was just a mash up of policies that have already been announced, plus £50m for football pitches. You know when you meet a kid, and you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and they say “a footballer”, and then you fondly tousle their hair and tell them to stop being an idiot? That’s about where we are, except it’s the prime minister and he has already fondly tousled his own hair.
He crescendoed on the “yeast, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up”, like a guy playing Articulate and just shouting words, while his teammates look on saying “what even is magic sauce?” Levelling up involves devolution. He plans to devolve power to counties, or shires, or whatever, but he doesn’t know what power, maybe just buses, and he doesn’t know what office any of this power will be devolved to; all he knows is that anyone can join in, unless they’re from the “loony left”.
“My offer to you: all of you who see a role for yourselves in local leadership, come to us with your vision.” That’s genuinely it. That’s what he means by a “skeleton of a plan”. That’s his magic sauce. That’s how he’s going to fix inequality so baked in that you can tell from a person’s wage packet whether or not they had free school meals as a child. Hear ye, levelling-up-mongers of the regions; go to him, and he will provide “support and strategic direction” for your plan, so long as it is visionary. And he calls the left loony. The man has a neck like a jockey’s bollocks.