Remember “levelling up”? It was all the rage just before Christmas, that distant time when people crowded in to trains and buses, went to cinemas and restaurants, and held meetings at which they physically met each other (I know: weird). The Conservatives had just won a general election, Labour’s “red wall” of parliamentary seats had crumbled and, bestriding the ruins, stood that colossus Boris of the North. Quoth he: “I come to liberate Workington Man from the dominion of rich and greedy London.” Well, loosely speaking.

The new Conservative government’s vision was of a United Kingdom in which the current huge concentration of economic power and activity in the capital city – a Labour-dominated capital city, of course - would be ended, and growth spread more evenly across the regions and nations. The government would facilitate this by proceeding from the questionable view that London has long enjoyed preferential treatment in transport infrastructure investment at the expense of everywhere else. Good transport links, of course, create the conditions for the business investment, energy and enterprise from which employment and prosperity flow. After decades of decline, the North would rise again. But that cannot happen without the help of business. How might it contribute to and benefit from a less London-dependent nation by 2030? Is such a “rebalanced” nation even likely to be born?

The problem with “levelling up” is that the gap to be bridged between heroic intentions and delivering results makes the so-called “north-south divide” look like a crack between paving stones. As someone who writes about London, I despair at the shallowness of debate about the issue among politicians and in the media alike.

There’s no doubt that the UK’s heavy reliance on London’s economy, in particular the West End, the City and Canary Wharf, is undesirable. But populist depictions of the capital as uniformly wealthy, as receiving more than its fair share of public investment, and as remote from and deleterious to the rest of the UK are either grossly simplistic or simply false. And “levelling up” is not simply a matter of cutting London down to size. The capital’s economy and those of other cities and regions are interdependent in many ways. Re-setting the relationships between them will entail finding the best ways to help other parts of the country thrive in tandem with London, not at its expense. And the “north-south divide” is itself a populist trope that ignores inequalities within regions, such as between cities and nearby towns, as well as between them.

Like every other aspect of the long-term future, such issues must now be addressed with the effects of Brexit and Covid-19 in mind. These must be measured alongside those of current government policy and larger established trends which we can’t assume are suddenly irrelevant.

Before the virus showed up, precedent suggested that leaving the European Union would make London even more essential to the UK’s prosperity, just as it has been since the last big economic shock, the financial crash of 2007-08. Despite everything, London kept on booming – a magnet for money, talent and entrepreneurs from across the nation and the world. With its array of cultural and leisure attractions, why would you make your base anywhere else? An irony of the Leave mentality outside the capital (and other big cities) is that in reacting against values associated with London – immigrants, rich bankers, a “metropolitan elite” – it had placed its areas’ destinies more fully in London’s hands.

It could be that London’s resilience will be crucial to the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis too, led once more by its despised financial sector. Yet the pandemic’s impacts could also have other effects. London itself, by which I really mean its high density, highly populated, tightly-clustered core business zones, might become a significantly less appealing place.

Who knows how long peoples’ anxieties about the public health environment in cramped offices and tubes and busy urban places will last, even if Covid-19 goes away? But any enduring reluctance to return to the old ways will complement the forced speeding up of business practice trends in some sectors towards more home working, enabled by technologies like Zoom. In London in particular, everyone is now assessing how much office space they will really need when normality returns and how much costly and wearing commuting might be cut out.

Could this diffusing of business entity locations – from agglomeration to atomization, if you like – have much wider spatial ramifications, stretching right across the UK? If working from home for at least some of the week becomes the new normal, does it matter so much where your home is? If you can remotely meet colleagues from Hackney and Bromley without setting foot outside your house in Ealing, what does it matter if the three of you live in Tintagel, Chester and Lincoln?

Steve Case, the cofounder of AOL has said of the US that entrepreneurs, investors and employees might now be more inclined to move and operate away from the dominant cities, including for family or lifestyle reasons, and draw on talent and expertise nearby. It has long been a sore point outside the capital that the gifted and ambitious migrate in large numbers to London, prepared to put up with flat-sharing and a high cost of living in return for excitement and opportunities. Case talks about a “talent boomerang”, that could help “emerging start-up cities rise”. Could something similar nurture a “rebalancing” of the UK over the next decade?

And even if London remains very much the “world city” giant it has become in the last 30 years and impossible to forsake entirely, faster trains will bring it closer to doorsteps in small towns and villages far away, where a four bedroom house costs a fraction of what you’d pay in London, the air is cleaner, flexible working means you don’t have to commute more than three times a week, and your local spending power alone makes a difference to your new local economy. This wouldn’t be dormitory living but the opposite - your home would be your business base too.

It is hard to predict what results will be produced by these new factors in a volatile economic equation. The intervention I would most favour would be much bolder devolution to cities and city regions across the UK, though judging by its recent power grab of Transport for London, national government seems to have other ideas. Can Leeds, Liverpool and Bristol hope to “level up” with London without more autonomy and, with it, more freedom to cultivate the business environments best suited to their needs?