Boris Johnson has admitted he has only “the skeleton” of a plan to level up the country as promised, as a major speech was criticised for lacking detail.
The prime minister was challenged that he had failed to set out how to tackle “entrenched inequalities” – after acknowledging 11 years of Tory rule had left many areas poorer than East Germany.
Mr Johnson used the speech in Coventry to unveil plans for a new wave of “county deals” to give the English shires similar devolved powers as metropolitan mayors, and made small-scale announcements on money for football pitches and the latest 15 towns to be awarded a total of £335m funding to regenerate communities.
But critics said the rambling 20-minute address was light on detail on what Downing Street cast as “the central purpose of his premiership”, some two years after he came to power.
Former No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings dismissed it as a “crap speech (same he’s given pointlessly umpteen times) supporting crap slogan”. Levelling up was “a vapid SW1 slogan that objectively does not work and shows the opposite of ‘strategy’,” said Mr Johnson’s former right-hand man.
And Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Boris Johnson – the actual prime minister – in a speech that was supposed to set out his policies to address regional inequality, asked the public to email him with ideas.”
The prime minister rejected the criticism that his speech lacked beef, insisting: “There was at least the skeleton of what to do.”
But firm detaills on what “levelling up” will entail are not expected until a white paper in the autumn, following a consultation by MP Neil O’Brien, appointed as the PM’s adviser on the issue just 10 weeks ago.
Mr Johnson insisted that he was ready to cooperate with regional leaders of all political stripes, after his speech appeared to indicate that powers would be devolved only to those who shared his priorities.
He told an audience of business leaders at a newly opened battery centre that he would not offer a “one-size-fits-all” model to devolve power across the country because “the loony left remains pretty loony and we need accountability”.
Local areas could be offered directly elected mayors similar to the post he once held in London, or could receive devolved powers in specific areas like bus services, he said.
“Come to us with a plan for strong accountable leadership and we will give you the tools to change your area for the better,” said the PM.
Challenged by The Independent over whether this meant only those who shared his political sympathies would get new powers, he replied: “We’ll deal with anybody, of course we will, and quite rightly – we want local leaders to come forward.
“What I’m saying is that with these powers must come responsibility and accountability and people taking charge of their local area and not just seeking out opportunities to point out differences between themselves and central government.”
Mr Johnson used his speech to reassure Tory MPs and voters that his levelling-up agenda does not mean starving the south of funding while diverting investment to disadvantaged areas in the Midlands and north of England, amid fears that the recent by-election defeat in Chesham and Amersham showed that traditional Conservative voters feel he is neglecting them.
“We don’t want to level down. We don’t want to decapitate the tall poppies, we don’t think you can make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer,” he said.
Mr Johnson said he wanted to drive out the “unspoken assumption by policy makers that investment should always follow success”, which had led to an over-heated economy, over-priced housing and crowded services in London and the southeast.
He said that government would play a “catalytic role” in fostering regional development with funding for higher education, transport infrastructure and research.
He all but disowned Conservative predecessors David Cameron and George Osborne for imposing an austerity decade of deep cuts on local councils and the communities they represent.
Asked how his promises to invest tallied with the Tory record of the past 11 years, he said: “I don’t think you’ll find I was ever one of those politicians who banged on about austerity. I never thought it was a helpful word.”
CBI director-general Tony Danker welcomed the commitment to greater regional devolution.
“The PM is right to recognise the importance of creating confidence among businesses to invest, and empowering local leaders to deliver,” he said.
“For too long, we have been so much more regionally unequal than our economic competitors.”
But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the prime minister must move on from “empty soundbites”.
“There has been precious little to show for the government’s vaunted levelling up agenda, and today’s speech will do little to change that,” she said.
Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of the Unite union, said: “We won’t be taking sermons on the mysteries of inequality from a prime minister that has sanctioned the snatchback of £20 per week from millions of the lowest-paid workers – who are on universal credit because work doesn’t pay in this country – and is poised to deny 2 million poor pensioners the income they need to get by.
“This government’s levelling-up promises ring hollow too when it refuses to play an active role in saving and creating decent work in this country.”