Boris Johnson Makes ‘Levelling Up’ Pitch in Look Beyond Covid

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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will set out his vision for improving living standards in Britain in a speech Thursday, as he seeks to look beyond the coronavirus pandemic and focus on his domestic agenda.

Speaking in the West Midlands, Johnson will say that his promise to “level up” the country -- a key slogan during his 2019 election victory -- amounts to raising living standards, spreading opportunity and improving public services, according to a statement from 10 Downing Street.

“Levelling up is not a jam-spreading operation,” Johnson said in the pre-briefed comments, stressing that he did not want to simply transfer wealth from richer to poorer parts of Britain. “It’s not zero sum, it’s win win.”

Johnson’s bid to return the public’s focus to his levelling up plan comes as a fresh wave of the coronavirus pandemic grows in the U.K., with Wednesday seeing the most recorded new infections since Jan. 15 and hospitalizations and deaths rising. Britain’s premier is pressing ahead with dropping final coronavirus restrictions on July 19, despite cautionary warnings from doctors.

To date, Johnson’s levelling up pledge has been criticized for being too vague and poorly defined, potentially pitting Conservative MPs who represent less affluent constituencies -- many of which sit in the so-called northern “Red Wall” where Johnson had success in 2019 -- against Tories who represent wealthier, southern seats.

How the British government pays for its plans is set to be one of the most significant challenges of Johnson’s premiership, given the damage to the U.K.’s public finances caused by coronavirus.

Johnson is due to say that previous governments directed too much investment toward London and the south-east, causing house prices to rise excessively and transport to become congested. He will say he wants to improve areas that have felt “left behind for decades,” Downing Street said in the statement.

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