Boris Johnson has urged people to “email me” over his plan to offer England’s counties the same powers enjoyed by city mayors as part of his “levelling up” ambition for the country.
The prime minister called for a “more flexible approach to devolution” and to “rewrite the rulebook with new deals for counties”.
In what had been billed as his “vision” for levelling up the UK, Mr Johnson used a speech to encourage people to “come to us in government” with plans for their local areas.
He denied that he had failed to present a “clear strategy” for his plan, insisting he had set out “at least the skeleton of what to do”.
But critics dismissed the prime minister’s “rambling speech” – which covered a number of policy areas although few new announcements – as him “making it up as he goes along”.
And Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, described the prime minister’s “levelling up” agenda as a “vapid” slogan that “objectively does not work and shows the opposite of ‘strategy'”.
Speaking at a battery industrialisation centre in Coventry, Mr Johnson said that the “most important factor in levelling up” was “leadership”.
He described this as “the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up”.
“If the big cities are beginning to catch-up, it is the rest of the country – those historic famous, famous towns, or our shires – where local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities,” Mr Johnson said.
“And to do that we must take a more flexible approach to devolution in England. We need to rewrite the rulebook with new deals for the counties.
“There’s no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers we’ve devolved to city leaders so that they can take charge of levelling up local infrastructure – like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution.”
Ahead of a government white paper on its “levelling up” plans to be published this autumn, Mr Johnson said ministers would “not be proceeding with a one-size-fits-all template”.
“One possibility is a directly-elected mayor for individual counties,” he added.
“And if you can think of a better title than mayor for somebody who represents a county, then please send me an email.
“But there are other possibilities. We could devolve power for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses.”
The prime minister made an offer to “all the would-be local leaders” to “come to us in government” with “your vision of how you will open up, how you will back business, attract more good jobs and improve your services”.
“Come to us with your plan for strong, accountable leadership and we will give you the tools to change your area for the better,” he said.
However, Mr Cummings was among those to immediately pan Mr Johnson’s attempt to flesh out his “levelling up” plan.
The former Number 10 aide described it on Twitter as a “crap speech (same he’s given pointlessly umpteen times) supporting crap slogan”.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said that “far from levelling up, it’s clear Boris Johnson is just making it up as he goes along”.
“This rambling speech does nothing for the millions of people who work hard and play by the rules but are still let down by this Conservative government,” he added.
And the Joseph Rowntree Foundation questioned whether the government can “really claim to be levelling up” when ministers intend to scrap the £20 uplift to Universal Credit later this year.
But CBI director-general Tony Danker said the prime minister was “right to recognise the importance of creating confidence among businesses to invest, and empowering local leaders to deliver”.
“Levelling up is not only vital to prosperity and opportunity in all parts of the UK, it’s also a core requirement for our competitiveness in the global economy,” he added.
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