Boris Johnson vows 'laser focus' on levelling up plan

British prime minister faces rebellion on energy as he tries to win back support from MPs

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in Poland this week trying to broker peace in Ukraine. PA
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Boris Johnson’s relaunched premiership will have a “laser focus” on tackling regional inequality in the UK, the prime minister will say this week as he tries to win back support after weeks of scandals and chaos at the top of the British government.

After Mr Johnson reshuffled his top team, his newly appointed chief of staff separately said it was time to “restore a smaller state” after the restrictive policies of the pandemic.

But with Mr Johnson not yet safe from removal by his own MPs, he faces a rebellion over soaring energy prices as a group of Conservatives push for a revival of shale gas fracking in Britain.

The prime minister has endured a dire political winter as revelations of government drinks parties during lockdown gravely wounded his authority.

On Friday he was sent written questions on these gatherings by police, who could hand him a fine if he is found to have breached his own rules.

But Mr Johnson has rejected calls to quit and sought to win back support by replacing staff and pushing his agenda of raising living standards in poorer parts of Britain.

The so-called “levelling up” agenda was a major theme of Mr Johnson’s winning election campaign in 2019, when the Conservatives won a host of working-class seats that had not supported them for decades.

Mr Johnson’s office said he would visit Scotland and the north of England this week to sell levelling up initiatives to the public.

It said he would “emphasise that under his new No 10 operation there will be a laser-focus on levelling up, clearing the Covid backlogs and improving living standards across the UK”.

Mr Johnson said: “I’m getting out of London this week and taking a simple message with me – this government is getting on with the job of uniting and levelling up the country.”

The government has also sought to placate Conservative critics by holding out against further coronavirus restrictions during the wave of Omicron infections.

Steve Barclay, the new Downing Street chief of staff, said it was time for the government to step back from people’s lives after it spent about £400 billion ($543bn) fighting the pandemic.

“Now, it is a priority to restore a smaller state, both financially and in taking a step back from people’s lives,” he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.

But the danger has not yet passed for Mr Johnson, who could be removed by MPs if 54 Conservatives submit letters demanding a confidence vote.

The police verdict, the publication of an unredacted Sue Gray report into the parties and a round of local elections in May are all seen as potential points of danger for the prime minister.

Fracking appeal

In the meantime, more than two dozen of those Conservative MPs are pushing Mr Johnson to change course on energy policy and lift a ban on shale gas fracking, which was introduced in 2019.

It comes as prices soar across Europe and countries look to phase out fossil fuels to meet their mid-century carbon emissions targets.

The pro-fracking appeal was backed by David Frost, a former Brexit negotiator who resigned from Mr Johnson’s government last year over what he described as over-regulation and excessive Covid restrictions.

“If our economy is to boom after Brexit, British industry needs a competitive and reliable source of energy,” he told The Telegraph. “Shale gas production achieves all this and more.”

Zac Goldsmith, a junior environment minister, opposed this suggestion by saying thousands of wells would be needed to replace even half of the UK’s imported gas.

Citing government-commissioned polling, he said the public would not accept industrial-scale gas extraction in the British countryside.

“To have any impact at all, the government would need to rig the market and go to war with furious communities,” he said.

Updated: February 13, 2022, 1:59 PM