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Levelling up is Johnson’s answer to chill penury

06 October 2021

PM’s agenda draws inspiration from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’

ALAMY

Boris Johnson delivers his keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, on Wednesday

Boris Johnson delivers his keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, on Wednesday

THE Prime Minister drew inspiration from a country churchyard for his levelling-up vision, he said in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, on Wednesday. The speech coincided with the day when the £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit came into force.

Mr Johnson said that the levelling-up agenda would address inequality in the UK, “one of the most imbalanced societies and lopsided economies of all the richer countries”.

He had been inspired, he said, by Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”: “When Thomas Gray stood in that country churchyard in 1750 and wrote his famous elegy . . . he lamented the wasted talents of those buried around him, the flowers born to blush unseen; the muted glorious Miltons who never wrote a poem because they never got to read; the simple folk who died illiterate and innumerate — and he knew that that was an injustice.”

AlamyA 19th-century sketch of the churchyard of St Giles’s, Stoke Poges, the inspiration for Gray’s “Elegy”

He turned this into a political point: “There is a huge philosophical difference between us and Labour, because in their souls they don’t like levelling up: they like levelling down.”

Elsewhere in the speech, Mr Johnson reiterated his promise to reform social care, and rebutted accusations that his Government was “ungenerous and unfeeling in our attempts to control our borders. . . This is the Government that stood up to China and announced that we would provide a haven for British overseas nationals from Hong Kong,” he said.

“Speaking as the great-grandson of a Turk who fled in fear of his life, I know that this country is a beacon of light and hope for people around the world, provided they come here legally, provided we understand who they are and what they want to contribute. And that’s why we took back control of our borders and will pass the Borders Bill, because we believe there must be a distinction between someone who comes here legally and someone who doesn’t.”

Mr Johnson’s speech touched only briefly on the COP26 climate summit, which takes place in Glasgow in a few weeks. Government and taxpayers alone could not meet the Paris Agreement target to stop the planet heating more than 1.5º, he said: private-sector investment, for example in wind turbines, was also needed.

The Prime Minister did not address the cut to Universal Credit, despite campaigners’ having called for it to be reversed.

Christians Against Poverty (CAP) warned again on Wednesday that the cut would lead to a “debt crisis”. The charity’s social-policy manager, Rachel Gregory, said: “This is a decision which will devastate millions of low-income households, and it’s simply not right. The price of many basic essentials, such as food and energy, is on the rise, but many people will also now lose £20 a week from their basic entitlement. This is a 20-per-cent reduction in the Universal Credit Standard Allowance.”

CAP was one of the organisers last week of an open letter signed by more than 1100 church leaders, which made a last-ditch plea to Mr Johnson to halt the cut (News, 1 October).

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) warned on Sunday that the cut represented “the biggest-ever overnight cut to social security. This will reduce the incomes of around 5.5 million families by £1040 per year.”

The JRF’s deputy director of policy and partnerships, Katie Schmuecker, said: “The Prime Minister is abandoning millions to hunger and hardship with his eyes wide open. The biggest ever overnight cut to social security flies in the face of the Government’s mission to unite and level up our country. . .

“People’s bills won’t get £87 a month cheaper from Wednesday, and families are already anxious about how they will get through a looming cost-of-living crisis. . . The Prime Minister cannot say he has not been warned, he must abandon this cut.”

TwitterThe Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, speaks at a rally organised by Manchester Cladiators, on Sunday

Also on Sunday, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, spoke at a rally organised by Manchester Cladiators in Manchester city centre. The group represents residents of buildings with dangerous cladding and serious internal fire-safety issues in Greater Manchester.

In an article for The Observer, published the same day, Dr Walker wrote that Manchester Cladiators were “campaigning to get their homes back to a state in which they are both safe to live in and can be sold for their proper value.

“To me, it seems plainly unjust that they should pay the price of other people’s mistakes, and, as a bishop with more than 30 years’ active involvement in housing associations, it feels like an injustice I want to do something about.”

Dr Walker argued that the Building Safety Bill, which is on Parliament’s timetable, “presents the perfect opportunity to resolve things once and for all, by including clauses to allow determination that a building was constructed wrongly, or with wrong materials, and to direct the costs of remediation back on to the developer”.

The Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, in London, the Revd Marcus Walker, preached at a choral evensong organised by the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) in St Ann’s, central Manchester, on Sunday. The co-founder of the CCF, David Burrowes, who is a former MP, spoke.

Conference fringe events included an event on freedom of religion and belief, on Monday, organised by SAT-7, a Christian satellite-TV station that broadcasts to the Middle East. There were also prayer breakfasts, on Monday and Tuesday. These were hosted respectively by the Langley House Trust and Open Doors.

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