With the return of parliament, the prime minister has an ever-expanding in-tray and Tory politicians are starting to get restless, writes Hugo Sutherland.
Parliament is back and the prime minister has an unenviable in-tray. The threat posed to the economy by Covid-19. The increasing likelihood of more local lockdowns and a winter NHS crisis. Brexit and whether to continue talks with the EU. The looming threat of Scottish independence. Schools and universities. Not to mention finding something meaningful to say on our approach to the climate crisis.
Number 10 is acutely aware that they’re having to fight on too many fronts and for the first time in years a credible opposition is emerging under Sir Keir Starmer. Tory backbenchers are increasingly restless. But where does infrastructure and the promise to ‘Build Build Build’ fit into all of this?
The cynical answer is that it doesn’t. It was a politically expedient soundbite typical of this prime minister and he shows no signs of being prepared to take the big and uncomfortable political calls required to deliver projects. The Covid response and preoccupation with Brexit makes this even more unlikely.
A more generous assessment is that the government is in the process of laying the right foundations needed for big new infrastructure delivery. On HS2, formal construction is finally getting underway. The pipeline of strategic road projects looks promising and is backed by significant investment. The proposed planning reforms are imperfect but allied with the devolution white paper expected this month could aid development. These could become important pillars in the Covid response and feature in post-Brexit strategy.
A reason to be encouraged is that the proposals irritate traditional Conservatives across the shires and suburbs. There’s a reason why the Cameron and May governments steered clear of major planning reform despite the evident need for it to be able to build more homes – they knew it would haemorrhage them votes. So, the fact this government is prepared to propose reform and take on the nimbies is significant.
‘Levelling up’ explains this. The phrase gains fewer column inches the more the government loses control of the political agenda. But with parliament back and more of a rhythm to Westminster life, expect to hear the phrase repeated ad nauseam. Indeed, only this week, a group of Conservative MPs have announced the setting up of a new ‘levelling up’ taskforce to keep up the pressure on the government.
Tory MPs in northern ‘red wall’ seats need more meat on the bones of the levelling up agenda to stand a chance of retaining their seats. Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley expect strong financial backing for projects they support as the delayed combined authority elections get closer. Tory strategists will also focus on areas such as Cambridgeshire and Peterborough ahead of metro mayor elections there. Ultimately, they know that levelling up must translate to infrastructure investment backed by quick delivery which begins to bridge the north/south divide.
How this month’s devolution white paper is received is the next test. This has big impacts for infrastructure delivery. In theory, devolution improves government by increasing local accountability – and responding to the pandemic necessitates this. But the road to devolution is always paved with good intentions. The danger is that the rush to create more mayors and more unitary authorities becomes a central government efficiency drive. To aid delivery of big projects the focus of this round of devolution must be on effectiveness not efficiency.
Hugo Sutherland is a director at Portland Communications.