Image of a tree blooming in pink flowers and in the background skyscrapers against a blue, cloudless sky.
The Penistone Viaduct in Penistone, UK, on July 28. Photographer: Carolyn Mendelsohn/Bloomberg
Design element serving as the series title. Text that reads Is the U.K. Levelling Up? over stylized hexagons with different colors.

A Failing Promise to Left-Behind Britain Awaits Next UK Leader

Boris Johnson’s pledge to close the UK’s wealth gap is stuck in reverse. Tory leadership contestants Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will need to win over former Labour voters

This is the fifth story in “Autumn Reckoning”, a six-part series on the political and economic landscape facing Britain’s new prime minister

Cheese-monger Steven Thorpe embodies the challenge facing Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak if they succeed Boris Johnson: How to retain the new voters the outgoing UK prime minister secured for the Conservatives at the last election.

Thorpe, 69, was a lifelong Labour supporter before Johnson’s pledge to complete Brexit and “level up” the nation persuaded him to vote Tory in 2019. But with Johnson defenestrated, he’s not sure he’d do so again.

“He failed on what he promised he were going to do,” Thorpe said as he packed up his market stall in the northern town of Penistone. “Miracles aren’t going to happen but something needs to change.”

Surrounded by disused coal mines, Penistone elected only Labour MPs between the 1930s and Johnson’s victory. Like swathes of England’s former manufacturing heartlands that predominantly voted Brexit and historically backed Labour, it was won over by Johnson’s electorally potent offer to re-tool Britain’s economic geography.

Image of a tree blooming in pink flowers and in the background skyscrapers against a blue, cloudless sky.
Rusting machinery at the National Mining Museum in Penistone.
Photographer: Carolyn Mendelsohn/Bloomberg

That means making good on leveling up—Johnson’s mission to close the gap between the richest and most deprived areas—is critical to his successor’s chances of retaining the backing of the electoral coalition that gave the Tories their biggest election win since 1987.

In their first head-to-head debate of the runoff on Monday, Truss said she’s “completely committed” to the pledge, and Sunak gave “an unequivocal massive yes” when asked to back it.

Warning Signs

Most of the traditionally Labour-voting seats that the Conservatives flipped since 2019 are falling further behind London and the South East of England

Behind in 2019 and falling or unchanged

Ahead in 2019 but falling or unchanged

Behind in 2019 but levelling up

Ahead in 2019 and gaining

Red Wall constituencies that flipped to Conservative

Scotland

NORTH

EAST

Bolton

North East

Penistone and

Stocksbridge

North

WEST

Yorkshire and

The Humber

Northern

Ireland

East Midlands

West Midlands

East of

England

Wales

South WesT

South East

London

Ahead in 2019

but falling or unchanged

Behind in 2019

and falling or unchanged

Ahead in 2019

and gaining

Behind in 2019

but levelling up

Red Wall constituencies that flipped to Conservative

Scotland

NORTH

EASt

Bolton

North East

Penistone and

Stocksbridge

North

WEST

Northern

Ireland

Yorkshire and

The Humber

East Midlands

West Midlands

East of

England

Wales

South West

South East

London

Ahead in 2019

but falling or

unchanged

Behind in 2019

and falling or

unchanged

Ahead in 2019

and gaining

Behind in 2019

but levelling up

Red Wall constituencies that flipped

to Conservative

Scotland

NORTH

EAST

Bolton

North East

Penistone

and Stocks-

bridge

North

WEST

Yorkshire

and The

Humber

Northern

Ireland

East

Midlands

West

Midlands

East of

England

Wales

South West

South EasT

London

Note: We have defined “Red Wall that flipped to Conservative” as those constituencies that voted for Labour in the last three General Elections prior to the 2019 election, but voted Conservative in 2019. Included are Hartlepool (which voted for Labour in 2019 but flipped to the Conservatives in the 2021 by-election), Bury South (whose MP Christian Wakeford was elected as a Conservative in 2019 but switched to the Labour party earlier this year and Wakefield (which voted for Labour in a by-election held in June.)

But Truss or Sunak will inherit a failing promise. Bloomberg’s Levelling Up Scorecard shows that since 2019, the salary gap relative to London and South East has widened in nine out of 10 constituencies. Homes are less affordable nearly everywhere and public spending per head has fallen behind the capital in every region of England. It’s been noticed in Penistone.

Nicola Ward, a 50-year-old who runs a fish-and-chip shop on the high street and voted Conservative in 2019, is another voter having second thoughts. “We don’t ever get anything out of Westminster,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll ever level up between north and south. They don’t believe we exist.”

Penistone and Stocksbridge’s Levelling Up Scorecard

Bloomberg News compared the performance of UK constituencies against a population-weighted average for London and the South East of England
Note: The data are reported at various higher-level geographies, among them regional data for government spending. For these metrics, constituencies were matched to their corresponding geography.
Source: Data compiled by Bloomberg News

Leveling up is just one major test for the next premier. Over the past week, Bloomberg News has looked at soaring living costs, public-sector pay, the National Health Service crisis, and the costs of Brexit.

The UK has greater regional inequality than almost every other developed nation, according to Bank of England and University of Sheffield research. As the economy shifted to services around London and the South East, once-thriving towns that flourished during the Industrial Revolution—built on industries such as shipbuilding, coal and steel—went into decline.

In Bolton North East, the challenge is clear. Johnson took the seat after 22 years of Labour control. But the town center remains pockmarked by shuttered stores, and a 1-billion-pound ($1.2 billion) regeneration plan has been repeatedly delayed.

Gayle Rostron, 53, an undecided voter who works at a tanning salon, complained about petty crime, anti-social behaviour and a lack of safe places for her 5-year-old granddaughter to play. “The town center is tragic,” she said. “I have lost faith in the government.”

Bolton North East’s Levelling Up Scorecard

Local MP Mark Logan, whose 378-vote majority is one of the party’s slimmest, said the pandemic hit Bolton hard, setting back efforts to improve the area. He’s been pushing for a tram extension to better connect Bolton and neighboring Manchester. It’s yet to materialize.

Leveling up “will take some time,” Logan said, pointing to 22.9 million pounds of funding the town received at the last budget. “Bolton can have a reinvention once again.”

The upheaval in Westminster has stalled the effort. First blown off course by the pandemic, Johnson then spent months in survival mode, attempting multiple resets to satisfy his restless MPs.

His administration’s Leveling Up Bill—including measures to revitalize high streets—was finally published in May, but Johnson then fired Michael Gove, the minister in charge, before announcing his own departure. That leaves the ministry in limbo, with former Business Secretary Greg Clark effectively a caretaker until the new leader is chosen.

Image of a tree blooming in pink flowers and in the background skyscrapers against a blue, cloudless sky.
Engineers work on maintenance at Penistone railway station.
Photographer: Carolyn Mendelsohn/Bloomberg

The electoral warnings signs for the Tories about failing to deliver on their central policy are flashing red. They lost the pro-Brexit northern seat of Wakefield at a special election in June. The constituency has a similar profile to the three-dozen “Red Wall” seats Johnson won from Labour in 2019. A similar swing at a general election would see the Tories lose the bulk of their gains from last time, endangering their working majority of 71.

The increasingly bleak economic backdrop doesn’t help Johnson’s successor. Inflation is at a four-decade high and Britons are experiencing a record squeeze on living standards that’s due to worsen when energy bills rise in October. But the amount of funding committed specifically to leveling up is modest at roughly 12 billion pounds—about 3% of total government departmental spending in fiscal 2019.

For Sunak and Truss, the electorate that counts in the immediate future are the 175,000 Tory Party members who elect the party leader and, by extension, Britain’s next premier.

Ahead of a party hustings in Leeds this week, Truss burnished her credentials by supporting a high-speed rail connection to Liverpool, a plan that was pared back by Johnson in November. She also won the backing of Tory MP Jake Berry, who leads the Northern Research Group of Conservatives and is outspoken on the need to spread opportunity.

At the hustings, 67-year-old Tory party member Greg Morgan said he hadn’t witnessed any leveling up and its definition was still hazy. Vickie Rank, 55, said it would never happen but thought Truss more likely to deliver than Sunak.

Once Sunak or Truss has won the leadership, their attention will have to turn back to the 14 million Britons who put their trust in Johnson in 2019. For voters like 73-year-old pensioner Elaine Hampshaw in Penistone, they’ll have their work cut out.

“He’s done nothing, hasn’t he? And that’s with the other two as well. They’re just promising all sorts,” Hampshaw said of Johnson, Truss and Sunak. After voting for Brexit in 2016 and the Tories in 2019, she says she wouldn’t do so again. “I thought things would be a lot better.”

Image of a tree blooming in pink flowers and in the background skyscrapers against a blue, cloudless sky.
Cheese-monger Steven Thorpe (left) and pensioner Elaine Hampshaw (right).
Photographer: Carolyn Mendelsohn/Bloomberg