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Three long years ago, when Boris Johnson was foreign secretary, he famously suggested that the then French president wanted to “administer punishment beatings to anyone who wants to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie”.
In October 2020, it looks like Andy Burnham and other Greater Manchester local leaders are on the receiving end of Downing Street retribution, for daring to demand more funding for firms and workers going into “very high” lockdown.
Johnson loves comparing himself to Churchill. But tonight many Tory MPs in the region could be forgiven for asking themselves, in the manner of that peerless Mitchell and Webb Nazi sketch, “Are we the baddies?” Manchester Young Conservatives even tweeted: “Boris has lied about helping us in the North. It’s time for him to go.”
In his press conference confirming the Tier 3 move, the PM refused repeatedly to say whether the £60m offered to Burnham and others earlier in the day had been withdrawn. Instead, he kept saying that £22m extra for test and trace and enforcement would go to the area.
On the key issue of support for business, the PM deliberately left hanging in the air the idea that the region had indeed lost out on £38m because the Labour metro mayor had not played ball. With other regions in Yorkshire and the North East also haggling, it felt very much like a tactic “pour encourager les autres”.
No wonder a furious Burnham had himself referred to Johnson “grinding communities down through punishing financial negotiations”. “Is this a game of poker?” the Mayor asked. “Are they playing poker with places and people’s lives through a pandemic? Is that what this is about?
Johnson’s allies believe that high-stakes poker is precisely what Burnham (who set his minimum offer at £65m) was himself playing and was simply forced to fold because he’d overplayed his hand. If indeed this whole deal fell apart because of a mere £5m difference between what Johnson offered and Burnham would accept, neutrals may think both sides are to blame for the failure.
Yet it’s Burnham who seems to have read the politics more shrewdly, as he emerges as the man who stood up for low-paid workers who face Christmas will shrunken incomes (not everyone is eligible for Universal Credit top-ups) while the PM looked like a petulant bully. Matt Hancock swiftly reassured MPs later that the £60m offer was still “on the table”, but unless that cash is actually delivered the political damage looks severe.
Burnham’s question – “Are they piling pressure on people to accept the lowest figure they can get away with? Is that how they are running this country?” – received more evidence when it emerged that No.10 had also played similar hardball with London Mayor Sadiq Khan over funding for his transport network.
The FT revealed tonight that ministers have threatened to take direct control of Transport for London unless Khan accepts a package of measures including higher council tax, a much larger congestion charge zone and higher tube and bus fares in return for rescue funding.
Which suggests that this is all beginning to sound like a pattern of behaviour, not a political slip-up. TSSA union leader Manuel Cortes said: “It’s clear that Johnson and his Tory ministers hate Liverpool, Manchester and London because most of its people don’t vote for them so they dish out collective punishments for them.”
The political damage may well extend to Rishi Sunak and not just Johnson. With one eye on the man whom many tip to replace the PM, Labour tonight sharpened its attack lines against him too, referring to his Instagram obsession with his signature and his refusal to bend. Does the chancellor’s reluctance to give more funding point to the real hidden agenda here: that Tier 3 lockdowns could last a lot longer than 28 days?
On Wednesday, Sunak will be in the firing line from both Opposition Day motions, as MPs are asked to back not just 80% wage support but also Marcus Rashford’s holiday extension for free school meals. Children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi told TimesRadio today that tackling child hunger “isn’t as simple as writing a massive cheque”. Campaigners argue it is in fact that simple. And protecting workers hit by closure of their workplaces through no fault of their own seems that simple too.
Of course, the politics of all this pale in comparison to the raw statistics outlined today. The number of UK deaths rose by 241, the highest daily reported rise since the first wave of the pandemic. Remember the ridicule Patrick Vallance suffered when his chart suggested an unchecked virus would lead to 200 deaths a day by mid-November? We’re in mid-October and we are at 241 a day.
Similarly scary were Jonathan Van Tam’s charts showing rising numbers of hospitalisations of the over-60s, and NHS medical director Stephen Powis saying Liverpool hospitals will on Wednesday have as many Covid patients as they did at the height of the pandemic in April. Manchester hospitals will face the same record numbers in two weeks’ time, Powis added.
So the need for restrictions is compelling. The problem is that in failing to come up with more money, the Tories risk looking like heartless Thatcherites who loathe the north, rather than a “levelling up” party which has a third of greater Manchester’s MPs and swathes of former Labour heartlands in the north east. Worst of all, fighting the pandemic relies on public consent to all the rules, sacrifice and self-isolation required.
Add on top of that the perception of bullying behaviour you get a toxic mix. Long-time students of Johnson’s conduct will recall him being involved in a plot to dish out a literal – not metaphorical – punishment beating to a journalist who had upset his Eton friend, the fraudster Darius Guppy.
Unless he acts quickly to fully fund the 3 Tier areas with no strings attached, the PM risks his own winter of discontent – and the accompanying punishment at the hands of the voters that traditionally follows.