This week was supposed to go well for Number 10. It did not. It is probably safe to conclude that it could not have gone worse. What started with a funding blitz in the latest tranche of Levelling-Up money concluded with the Lancashire plod opening an investigation into Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for not wearing a seatbelt in his Ministerial car. Of course, we know which one dominated the headlines the next day.
“This is why I should always take the private jet!”... We imagine Rishi Suank grumbled to his advisors this week - a safe space that gets you from A to B in minutes, where silly seat belt laws do not apply.
On paper, a funding blitz should be a day for any government to enjoy. And for all intents and purposes, Wednesday’s Levelling-Up media push began very well. Ministers were sent to the far corners of the UK to celebrate the second allocations of the Levelling-Up fund, hitting the local radio waves and TV. We saw Michael Gove (fail to) replicate Eric Morecambe’s statue pose in Morecambe Bay, Levelling-Up Minister Dehenna Davison in Whitby, DCMS Secretary of State Michaelle Donelan in the Midlands, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in North West England, and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan in the North East.
The PM even took part in numerous Q&As which the political commentariat agreed went very well. Then the day, which no doubt had been meticulously planned by Number. 10 press staff, was unseated by a video published on Rishi Sunak’s Instagram showing the PM giving an overview of the Levelling-Up announcement in the back of his Ministerial car while not wearing a seatbelt. Of course, beady-eyed Twitter users quickly caught-on and characteristically told the teacher on him. Later that day, we learned that Lancashire police were to investigate the matter, meaning the PM could receive his second fixed penalty notice, this time potentially resulting in a £500 fine.
Seatbelt jokes aside however, there has been mixed reviews of the latest Levelling-Up tranche, which totalled £2.1 billion for more than 100 projects. MPs whose constituencies received levels of funding praised the Prime Minister for the decision - Morecambe for example received £50 million for its very own Eden Project. Some safe Labour areas such as St Helen’s and Lewisham received substantial levels of funding for local projects (although didn’t go as far as using the phrase ‘Levelling-Up’ in their social media posts).
Critics however argued that there is more money going to richer South East areas than to more deprived areas in the North - a notion that Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove has vehemently denied. Meanwhile, Number.10 has insisted that two-thirds of the money has been allocated to the most deprived areas, with the North receiving the most amount of cash per head.
But the criticism doesn’t stop there, many Conservative MPs, particularly those in very marginal seats, have been vocal in their criticism of not receiving any funds. Robert Largan in the super-competitive High Peak seat criticised the PM for the lack of funding heading their way. The Government has also drawn criticism for overlooking many safe Labour areas too - notably Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and County Durham, Sefton and parts of Liverpool and Birmingham all made unsuccessful bids for funding.
This prompted West Midlands mayor and staunch Sunak ally, Andy Street, to lodge a scathing attack on the process in which Levelling-Up funding is decided. In his own media push, the West Mids Mayor, who has been praised for his cross-party approach, said that he wanted ministers to justify why "the majority" of bids in his region had been rejected. On Twitter, Mr Street said "Fundamentally, this episode is just another example as to why Whitehall's bidding and begging-bowl culture is broken, and the sooner we can decentralise and move to proper fiscal devolution the better.”
Of course, it would be naive to think that all of this isn’t politically driven. Of course it is. The uproar we see from local MPs and Mayors who did not receive funding was to be expected, given that they need to be seen as on the side of their voters. The Conservative Party is also looking at a wipe-out at the coming Local Elections in May - and needs to put its best foot forward to quickly minimise the damage the Party is anticipating. To do this, the Party has targeted many areas that it needs to improve its favorability come May. Accusations of pork-barreling, the process by which more public funds are allotted by the governing party to politically favourable areas, has been audible from opposition MPs.
Managing the backlash is Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove, who yesterday announced that he will work with those areas that did not receive investment as expected to ensure they are prioritised in the next funding round. Meanwhile - we await word from Lancashire Police on the matter of the PM’s seat belt “oversight”.