Michael Gove urges Scottish Government to 'work together' on levelling up as Nicola Sturgeon dismisses proposals as distraction

Michael Gove has urged the Scottish Government to "work together" with Westminster on levelling up the country, saying communities across Scotland “deserve better”.

Writing exclusively for The Scotsman, the Secretary of State for Levelling-Up claimed the UK Government could not succeed on its own and pleaded with Nicola Sturgeon to help replicate the success of the vaccine roll-out.

But his pleas prompted the First Minister to dismiss the proposals as a distraction from the issues facing Boris Johnson, with Ms Sturgeon labelling the new Levelling Up White Paper as a "desperate attempt" to divert attention away from the ‘Partygate’ scandal.

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Mr Johnson is now facing a growing revolt in the wake of Sue Gray’s pared-back but damning report, with three more Tory MPs withdrawing their support yesterday.

Levelling-Up secretary Michael Gove is interviewed during a live broadcast on College Green. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Senior Conservative Tobias Ellwood announced he had submitted a formal letter calling for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister as he hit out at the “horrible” situation of having to defend Downing Street.

Anthony Mangnall, who entered Parliament in 2019, also criticised Mr Johnson’s “actions and mistruths”, while long-standing MP Sir Gary Streeter confirmed he had also submitted a letter to the 1922 Committee because he could not “reconcile the pain and sacrifice” of the vast majority of the public with the “attitude and activities” of those in Downing Street.

Writing in The Scotsman, Mr Gove said: “We cannot succeed on our own. Strong devolution means that, in Scotland, many of the policy levers we are pulling to improve lives and enhance communities in England rest are rightly in the hands of the Scottish Government.

"So I want us to work together. We have seen throughout the Covid pandemic what can be achieved.

"Our world-leading vaccine roll-out was the very essence of that spirit of Team UK at its best. The UK Government procured vaccines in the international market at scale. The Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities got jags into arms from Eyemouth to Stornoway.

“This success should set the template for what we can achieve by working together in the future.

“That is why I am asking the leaders of the devolved governments, local councils and communities to throw their weight behind levelling up.”

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The Scottish Government had already rejected the proposals before they were formally announced.

The white paper outlines plans for 12 “national missions”, including improving public transport, 5G connectivity and life expectancy, that are to be enshrined in law.

The document includes plans to develop a series of UK Silicon Valleys, with £100 billion invested in three new “innovation accelerators” centred on the Glasgow City Region, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.

The aim is to replicate the success of Stanford in California and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in developing “clusters” of research excellence with its direct adoption by locally based allied industries.

Ministers are to begin negotiations with the existing combined mayoral authorities in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester on new “trailblazer” devolution deals deepening the powers they already enjoy.

At the same time, the paper also promises to regenerate 20 towns and cities by “assembling and remediating brownfield land” to create “transformational developments combining housing, retail and business in sustainable, walkable, beautiful new neighbourhoods”.

The paper also promises to continue the relocation of more senior civil service roles outside London, with jobs moving to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds.

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But furious opposition parties have already dismissed the funding as old money and questioning the timing of the announcement.

Ms Sturgeon said: “It’s re-hashed money, it’s re-hashed announcements and it’s a pretty desperate attempt by a beleaguered Westminster Government and an utterly discredited Prime Minister to try and divert people’s attention and I think it might take more than that to succeed.

“I spoke to Michael Gove on the phone last night. He didn’t ask me to be involved in anything – he told me what he would be announcing today.

“I made the point that as First Minister of Scotland I shouldn’t be getting told about it less than 24 hours before he announced it.”

She added: “I always welcome extra money for Scotland, but these are issues that are – in the main – the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament and Westminster is, I know, trying to muscle in, to spend money, make decisions over the heads of not just the Scottish Parliament, but the Welsh Parliament, the Northern Irish Parliament as well.

“If the UK Government is genuine about wanting to work together, and I’m very happy to do so, the essential starting point for them is to actually respect the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament rather than ride roughshod over them. That’s a much better foundation for working together.”

As well as criticising a lack of engagement, the SNP also claimed the plans were a threat to devolution.

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The SNP's constitution spokesperson at Westminster, Tommy Sheppard, said: “These half-baked proposals fall far short and will completely fail to address even the most basic problems that the Tories themselves created.

“This white paper is a desperate attempt to solve a problem of the Tories own making and a further attempt to strip away and centralise power, taking out of the hands of the Scottish people and putting it into the hands of Whitehall."

Responding to Ms Sturgeon's comments, a UK Government source said: "This is a deeply disappointing response from the Scottish Government to ambitious plans which will transform Scottish lives and communities.

"Rather than dismissing concrete action to tackle the scourge of inequality, Scottish ministers should focus on working together for the good of the people of Scotland."

Mr Johnson had made “levelling up” a key theme of his 2019 election campaign, but funding for schemes announced in the plan yesterday were from allocations previously set out in the spending review, rather than new pots of money.

The announcement also sparked a furious clash in the Commons between Mr Gove and shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy, who claimed the plan amounted to “ministers scurrying around Whitehall shuffling the deckchairs, cobbling together a shopping list of recycled policies and fiddling the figures”.

She said: “Only two thirds of children leave primary school with the basic skills to get on.

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“Forgive me if I’m missed something, but wasn’t he the education secretary for four years?”

“For some of us this is personal. We’ve lived these failures every single day, we’ve watched good jobs go, our high streets boarded up, young people who have to get out to get on.

“This system is completely broken and he’s given us more of the same.

“This was meant to be the Prime Minister’s defining mission of government.

“I’m not surprised he was too embarrassed to come here today and to defend it himself. It’s so bad that even the Secretary of State has privately been saying that it’s rubbish.”

Ms Nandy described the Levelling Up white paper as “smoke and mirrors”.

But Mr Gove insisted the plans would allow “overlooked and undervalued communities to take back control of their destiny”.

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He said: “The white paper we are publishing sets out a detailed strategy to make opportunity more equal and to shift wealth and power decisively towards working people and their families.”

The defence was issued as the defection of Mr Ellwood added to the trickle of letters to 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady, with reports suggesting the Prime Minister attended more of the gatherings being investigated by police than previously thought.

It was reported Mr Johnson had been seen heading up to his Downing Street flat on the night it hosted a gathering being investigated by the Metropolitan Police.

Culture secretary Nadine Dorries labelled Tory MPs calling for a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson as “selfish”, dismissing them as “a handful of egos”.

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