After six days of difficult and largely fruitless discussions with Downing Street, tempers were fraying among Greater Manchester council leaders and MPs on Thursday morning.
In a meeting at 9am between the region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, and local government chiefs, the leader of Rochdale Borough Council, Allen Brett told his colleagues he was so fed up with London that he wanted to make his feelings clear to Edward Lister, the prime minister’s close adviser, with whom the group was preparing to open yet another online discussion at 9.30am.
“I said I was angry, annoyed and frustrated,” Brett recalled. “I said I just felt like saying [to Lister], just stop messing us around. Tell us if you have the evidence for all this and that it will work – or not. Just tell us.” Brett thought his colleagues might disapprove of him going for Lister’s jugular, but instead they urged him on and said they all felt the same way.
Lister had been trying since the previous Friday to convince the area’s leaders to agree to move into the new tier 3 level of restrictions to combat rising Covid-19 infection rates – a move that would mean the complete closure of all Greater Manchester’s pubs and bars again. But the talks had gone nowhere.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham is strongly resisting a move to tier 3 because the government is offering to subsidise only 67% of the wages for businesses forced to close. Photograph: Getty Images
With Liverpool already having been forced to accept tier 3 restrictions because of high infection rates and hospital admissions, Lister was desperate for Greater Manchester to fall into line before ministers held online talks with local MPs, including its nine Tories, at 10.30am. If they too agreed, the plan was that it could all be announced as a sealed deal, with everyone in the north-west united, in a statement to the Commons by health secretary Matt Hancock at 11.30.
But the Greater Manchester leaders wanted answers and evidence from London – not instructions and orders, or fake shows of unity. They feared the measures would inflict severe economic damage on local people, and leave many thousands unable to pay their bills in the run-up to Christmas.
Over previous days anger had been building for many reasons. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had said just 67% of wages would be paid to those affected by the latest tier 3 closures, rather than the 80% that applied under the furlough scheme announced in March. Why were people in the north-west being offered less than those in the spring national lockdown, they asked?
Manchester leaders had also had problematic meetings with Prof Jonathan Van Tam, the government’s deputy chief medical officer for England, which made them wonder if there was any science at all behind the plan. They had asked Van Tam if he could guarantee that closing pubs and clubs would bring the virus under control in their areas – and Van Tam said he couldn’t.
When the meeting with Lister began it was Burnham who piled in first, telling the man from No 10 that he had failed to provide any evidence of why closures would work, or reassurances about improved economic support. “You are doing all this and telling us to go into tier 3 but you haven’t even answered the questions we gave you last time,” he said.
Conservatives in the Commons are just as critical as Labour MPs. Photograph: Dinendra Haria/Rex/Shutterstock
At 10.30am, things got even more fractious when the 29 local Labour and Tory MPs began a meeting with junior health minister Helen Whately. Van Tam was present again. When Van Tam told the MPs – who included five Tories who had won their “red wall” seats for the first time last December – that people in pubs and bars who talked above loud music were more likely to spread the virus, the Labour MP Lucy Powell was so cross she un-muted herself and told him in no uncertain terms that for 12 weeks it had been table service only in Greater Manchester, and that households had only been able to mix outside anyway.
Then, when Whately tried to hurry the meeting to an end, Jim McMahon, the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, protested, telling the minister: “Well I am sorry if you haven’t got time. But people in this meeting represent 2.9 million people and you are going to have to listen to what we have got to say!” When Whately summed up saying that she had heard many different views, most of the MPs – Tory and Labour – un-muted too, saying that was rubbish because they were all 100% united. They did not want to go into tier 3 and that was that.
Conservative MPs had been just as critical as the Labour ones. Sir Graham Brady, the Tory MP for Altrincham and Sale West and chair of the 1922 committee, said: “The case has not been made for Greater Manchester to move into a tier 3 lockdown.”
Another Conservative, William Wragg, who represents Hazel Grove, was most outspoken of all. He said: “I have news from Greater Manchester where the impossible has been achieved. All of the MPs, the leaders of the councils and indeed the mayor, surprisingly, are in agreement with one another, the meeting we had earlier today was entirely pointless. I may as well have talked to a wall, quite frankly.”
Greater Manchester was far from alone in breaking ranks last week. At the very time the government needed national unity behind the new three-tier system, different areas of the UK were pulling in different directions. In England resentment about rules being forced on them from London had grown among local leaders who had for more than six months been calling, largely in vain, to be given additional local powers to run their own anti-Covid-19 strategies.
It had all built up into an ugly mood. “We have got Liverpool feeling cheated, Lancashire feeling bullied, and Manchester angrily determined,” the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “ I think what we have seen in the last few days is that even long-held party loyalties are giving way to a widespread belief that the most urgent threat to life and livelihoods is not what is going on in Liverpool gyms and Lancashire pubs: it is 200 miles away in an increasingly disconnected Westminster bunker that seems to lack either the care or competence to get us through the crisis.”
Steve Rotheram, the metro mayor for Liverpool, would have preferred a short circuit breaker. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
The spirit of regional defiance saw cities and areas put local interests first. Liverpool City Region’s metro mayor, Steve Rotheram, agreed midweek to accept tier 3 restrictions because of the area’s acute problems with rising virus rates and hospital admissions. But he made clear he would have preferred a short “circuit break” or national lockdown, as would Burnham. Rotheram insisted he had been left with little option. “The government didn’t give us a choice on Tuesday, we were going into tier 3 no matter what,” he said, adding that he was still fighting for more economic support. “Of course, we want to preserve life but we need a package of support to preserve the livelihoods.” London, where the mayor, Sadiq Khan, says he too would prefer a national lockdown, as well as Essex and York, were put under tier 2 controls, meaning tighter restrictions on household mixing.
Scotland closed pubs across its central belt earlier this month. Wales’s first minister, Mark Drakeford, last week imposed a ban on people from Covid-19 hot spots in other parts of the UK travelling to his country.
Pubs and restaurants in Northern Ireland were ordered to close and schools will have an extended half-term break as part of a four-week “circuit-breaker” to deal with soaring cases. First minister Arlene Foster announced that the partial lockdown would also mean a ban on indoor sport, close-contact services such as hairdressing, and public events involving more than 15 people.
Across England, Tory concerns were not confined to “red wall” areas of the north west. Andy Street, the mild-mannered former businessman who is now the Tory metro mayor for the West Midlands, issued a statement on Monday revealing that he did not agree with the decision to place the majority of the region into tier 2.
Street had been pushing for more flexibility to be placed in the tiering system. Tier 2 would increase restrictions on hospitality, which he argued was not a big transmitter of the virus in the region. After weeks of close cooperation, relations “have soured”, said one insider.
On the night he won his stunning general victory last December, Boris Johnson said he wanted to run a “one nation” government. The Tories had taken dozens of Labour seats in the north and Midlands. Johnson promised to repay the trust of those former Labour voters by working night and day on their behalf. The UK would be “levelled up”. Just as David Cameron and George Osborne had promoted the idea of a “northern powerhouse” the Conservatives under Johnson were again promising big things for their new voters in working-class areas.
Wales has banned entry to people from coronavirus hotspots in the rest of the UK. Photograph: Andrew Duke/Alamy Stock Photo
Over the past week, however, the fight against Covid-19 has, in the eyes of many voters in those areas, made a mockery of such pledges. Centralised policy-making, diktats from the centre, and refusals over recent months by the Johnson government to devolve authority to local leaders in the fight against coronavirus have instead fuelled intense anger. Some now predict that Covid-19 could turn out to be as damaging to the Tories in the north under Johnson as the miners’ dispute was to the party under Margaret Thatcher.
Lord (Jim) O’Neill, who served as a minister under David Cameron, and who helped promote the northern powerhouse, said he did not know how the government could get out of the mess it had got itself into. “How can you have a government with a prime minister who made his first two trips to the north to make passionate speeches about how he is going to do something about levelling up, now be pushing ideas that would do the reverse? I can see why the Treasury might want to penny-pinch a bit but how on earth, when the government happily introduced the 80% furlough in March, now – when it relates to the north – can they say they will chop it to 67%?
Arlene Foster order widespread closures in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA
“If it is just about pubs and bars, why don’t they just guarantee the revenue of the pubs and bars?”
Asked if the pandemic had demonstrated the case for more devolution, O’Neill added: “100% it has. The theme of the northern powerhouse is about treating the regions more seriously, including devolving policies seriously; and I think the crisis has demonstrated the case better than any words that ever came out of me or anybody else.”
Even before the latest rows, Conservative MPs were angry with their own government for ignoring them and being too centralised. Now that anger has spread to the regions and cities amid cries that One Nation promises have been betrayed.
Deborah Mattinson, author of a recent book on the red wall seats won by Tories at the last election, returned to voters she spoke to then. Their responses suggest a shift in opinion might be under way. Ian, a Tory convert from Lancashire was scathing, she reports for an article on theguardian.com. “The whole lockdown thing isn’t working and needs a rethink. You can’t impose these ideas from the top. Andy Burnham knows the area and the likely impact on the area, but he hasn’t been listened to. I’m increasingly unconvinced by Boris Johnson, he’s not impressed me at all,” he said.
Courteney, from Middleton, was still more negative, saying: “I don’t think the north will recover fully for a long time if
Professor Tony Travers, an expert in local government at the London School of Economics, said the combination of Covid 19 and Brexit had highlighted the need for a “constitutional re-set” involving real devolution, if trust in government was not to be further eroded.
“Attempting to deliver politically sensitive local lockdowns based on confidential data analysed in Whitehall was bound to end in trouble,” he said. “Telling people in Bolton, Liverpool and Gateshead they had further to curtail their freedoms because of decisions by the cabinet on the basis of numbers analysed in London could only have worked if civic leaders had been brought fully into decision-making.”
He added: “Until such power and resource-raising powers are shifted to mayors such as Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Andy Street, levelling-up has no chance of success.”
Yesterday, as the deadlock continued between Greater Manchester and central government, it was clear where most people in the city were placing their trust. Inside the popular Wilson’s Social bar on Oldham Street, chef Romin Farahani said: “Burnham’s right on this, he’s the only one who’s stood up to them.”
Across the road, Mike Davis, barman at the Freemount pub, was withering about the prime minister’s handling of the crisis. “There is no science backing it [tier 3]. The 10pm curfew? What’s the point?”
And along nearby Hilton Street, Colin White, who runs Vinyl Revival, said his record sales were hugely down. “Any impact on the night-time economy has a massive knock-on effect for us, we’re already 50% down. It’s a complete shitshow, but at least Burnham is trying to help the working man,” he said.