“The Tories,” The Spectator observed this week, “have a new-found love for devolution.” It may seem like a startling revelation for some readers of this newspaper, but it was a pretty accurate assessment of sentiment at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

Pressured by One Nation Tories to translate election rhetoric into policy action, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove seem to be surprising converts to the potential of localism to remedy inequalities across the UK.

Re-energising former industrial regions, however, is not a wholly alien concept for Conservatives. Remember it was Swansea-born Michael Heseltine who realised in the 1980s that ‘left-behind’ areas such as London’s Docklands and Liverpool needed investment and, more crudely, proper government attention to avoid a continual decline.

Much more recently, William Hague, a former Tory party leader, identified “radical decentralisation” – in the sense of giving communities more “ownership of their own lives” – as the key to defining and implementing the “levelling-up” conundrum.

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For that is what this particular slogan has become: an elusive but omnipresent definitional dilemma. What does it mean? Before this conference, not even Johnson knew. And while the Prime Minister will care little what a plucky Welsh columnist says, he will do well to listen to YouGov: the pollsters, after all, said this week that his majority could be halved if an election was held imminently.

Jake Berry, a backbencher who chairs the Northern Research Group, summed up the sense of urgency for The Times. A “clear plan”, he wrote, was needed to maintain the trust of Red Wall voters, and the UK Government, therefore, should ensure it delivers “devolution with a purpose.”

The new head of Whitehall’s super-ministry for dragging Newcastle on par with Notting Hill seems to agree.

The National Wales: Michael Gove was appointed Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities last month. Photo: PAMichael Gove was appointed Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities last month. Photo: PA

Regarded, even by the First Minister of Wales, as a relatively competent member of the Cabinet, Michael Gove has been granted the chance/opportunity/poison chalice to deliver levelling up. He wants to “strengthen local leadership to drive real change”, in addition to raising living standards where they are lower and better public services where they are weaker. Nobody can disagree with that.

And even opposition politicians, such as Labour’s Andy Burnham, sense a definition emerging from the murkiness of slogan spinning.

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So enamoured he is by the policy, in fact, Labour’s Mayor of Greater Manchester is keen to work with Gove to deliver it. Comrades in Wales should not be surprised. Although the King of the North rallied against Downing Street in the pandemic, he recognises the core component of levelling-up is to his benefit.

Discussions around its meaning and implementation will no doubt go on and on – as a clever Disraelian notion of being “everything and nothing”, as another conservative commentator noted – but its target audience will always be the same.

This is, of course, the North of England. Here there are blue bricks in the Red Wall, and in the cities Burnham and other metro mayors rule. By 2024, if things go to plan, the Prime Minister will hope he will be handsomely rewarded politically if the socio-economic conditions in this underfunded and badly neglected part of Britain are improved.

But here is the crux of the issue: levelling-up is not on its way to Wales or Scotland. Perhaps for good reason – Welsh and Scottish governments have their own economic powers and two very distinctive parties that would, unsurprisingly, have different political priorities to the Conservatives in England.

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It’s not for the want of trying, though. Simon Hart’s interpretation of the concept has been to override Welsh Government powers to invest in Wales when it suits politically: in short, unblocking the ‘nostrils of the Welsh dragon’, otherwise known as the Brynglas tunnels, as his boss said last year.

Such a deeply unconsidered strategy and insensitive approach, I suspect, is one that Gove would want to avoid with sympathetic Labour mayors like Burnham but also devolved leaders from his own party, such as Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen and Andy Street in the West Midlands.

The National Wales: Andy Burnham has been Mayor of Greater Manchester since 2017. Photo: PAAndy Burnham has been Mayor of Greater Manchester since 2017. Photo: PA

That doesn’t mean the UK government has no role to play in Wales, or that levelling-up is something that cannot happen here. A more collaborative relationship between Cardiff and London would be somewhere to start. And that doesn’t necessarily mean money flowing down the M4 for Cardiff Bay to dispense, with Welsh Labour Ministers getting all the political kudos, but it means respecting the pre-Brexit structures for managing investment which was the domain of Cardiff Bay.

To paraphrase and re-apply comments made by Lord Hague, reinstating those powers Drakeford and his Cabinet feel as their own would allow Welsh-based politicians to take ownership for the future of the nation. It means inevitably respecting the devolution settlement in place, just as many Tory MPs from northern England want Westminster to give their local areas the powers they crave.

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Rather than missing Senedd votes, and fighting endless wars on what it means to be Welsh and British, a constructive Conservative party might realise that its ambition in England could be replicated in Wales.

At the moment, however, levelling-up to the Welsh and the Scots is little more than a Prime Ministerial soundbite.

Raising the living standards of Oldham and the job prospects in Sunderland are admirable tasks, even if it has the whiff of pork-barrel politics. But selective localism, English localism, is not the way to create a more equal and united country.

Rather, it reinforces to Cardiff and Edinburgh that there are three distinct countries across Britain, with their own nationalisms and national parties. And nobody does more to remind us of that than Boris Johnson.

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