Boris Johnson’s Manchester headache is not going away

LONDON — Boris Johnson’s battle with Manchester may be only the beginning.

This week saw twin political tussles, with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham over the level of financial support for the city as it enters the highest category of coronavirus restrictions, then with Manchester United footballer and child poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford (and the Labour party) over the provision of meals to England’s poorest children during the school holidays.

Both are a sign of things to come as Johnson’s core policy agenda of “leveling up” — reducing inequalities between rich and poor regions of the U.K. — meets the grim economic realities of the pandemic. How generous the British government can be in alleviating economic suffering is quickly becoming a new political fault-line. 

On Wednesday, Labour made hay, with symbolic votes in the House of Commons first on providing greater support for wages in regions, like Greater Manchester, entering “tier three” coronavirus measures, and then on free school meals.

Both are areas where the government has decided (for now) greater spending is not required — that existing support is generous enough. But with the pandemic grinding on into the winter and with the possibility of more local lockdowns (or even a national one), Johnson’s handling of the economic fallout from the pandemic is likely to come under ever-more scrutiny.

Labour’s vote on free school meals was, predictably, lost (despite five Tory MPs rebelling.) But as Rashford — an increasingly influential and, for Johnson, dangerous political campaigner — put it, the issue (along with so many other questions of hardship and inequality) “is not going away.”

Symbolism

The bitter row over Greater Manchester’s financial support led to bad-tempered scenes in the House of Commons Wednesday, with Burnham accused of “grandstanding” by some of the region’s Conservative MPs. Johnson confirmed that, contrary to some reports, there will be £60 million of funding available — less than the £90 million local leaders were pushing for but more than the £22 million initially thought to be the final offer.

But the details of the clash are unlikely to be remembered for quite as long as the “symbolism:” a northern mayor calling for more support for a struggling region (which has been under some form of pandemic restriction for 12 weeks now) — and being rebuffed by Westminster. 

“This is symbolic. It looks like — rightly or wrongly — the government doesn’t want to help,” said Jane Green, director of the Nuffield Politics Research Centre and co-director of the British Election Study survey. “It looks like a moral cause, based on a very strong set of needs that were met [at the start of the pandemic] in April but suddenly can’t be met now. It’s become about whether the government looks like it cares.”

That’s a worrying frame for a government that won an election presenting its central policy — Brexit — as a project of renewal for the U.K.’s “left behind” communities — and it’s not a narrative that is going away any time soon. 

“A lot’s going to happen between now and the next general election when we can really judge the long-term consequences of these things,” said Green. “But sadly the pandemic is very likely to exacerbate inequalities rather than level-up. So the government, if it’s serious about doing this, has got an enormous challenge made all the greater by the financial difficulty the country is likely to be in.”

At the weekly prime minister’s questions session in the House of Commons, Johnson pointed to the huge sums of money already spent protecting jobs — “£200 billion in support for jobs and livelihoods.” But with national debt hitting a 60-year high in September, according to official figures released Wednesday, the government’s ability — or willingness — to spend ever-higher sums to stave off economic hardship appears to be decreasing.

The Manchester row centered on the government’s decision to pay two-thirds of the wages of employees of businesses forced to close by government restrictions — not, as Labour want, 80 percent of wages of all affected employees across the economy, as was the offer of the original furlough scheme in the spring.

Body blows

Conservative MPs in the seats Johnson won from Labour at the last election are concerned about the economic pain coming down the track — but also angry at what they see as political gameplaying in the middle of a pandemic from the opposition. 

“What concerns me most is the coming hardship, the rising unemployment and some people’s despair,” said William Wragg, Conservative MP for Hazel Grove in Greater Manchester, during Wednesday’s Commons debate. Jake Berry, a former minister responsible for the so-called “Northern Powerhouse” proposal to boost economic growth, told Times Radio that the government’s claim to be “delivering for the peoples of the north” was not necessarily “in tatters” but it had received “a few body blows over the last week.”

For Andrew Gwynne, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish in Greater Manchester, and former coordinator of his party’s national election campaigns, this week’s battles between Westminster and Greater Manchester also represent the limits of the government’s willingness to empower England’s regions as part of the leveling up agenda. 

“The government can’t have it both ways,” he said. “They want to empower city regions, they want powerful combined authorities, they want powerful city mayors — except when the city mayors stand up for a city.”

“I’m sure when Boris Johnson was mayor of London he would have done exactly the same. But the reality is, when it comes to it, they take a ‘Westminster and Whitehall knows best’ attitude.”

Johnson’s decision to press ahead with imposing the government’s highest level of restrictions on Greater Manchester, in defiance of opposition calls for an alternative national, short-lived, circuit-breaker lockdown also represents a doubling-down on the prime minister’s regional strategy for suppressing the virus. This is an approached back by England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam on Tuesday, although other members of the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies — SAGE — want a circuit breaker.

In Labour-run Wales, just such a temporary, strict lockdown will be introduced on Friday, coinciding with a one-week school holiday; another sign of how divided the U.K.’s nations have become in their pandemic response — and potentially an example for Johnson’s critics to point to, should the Welsh approach prove more successful at suppressing the virus in the short-term. 

“You’re going to have the perfect example of something which, if it works, is going to reflect very badly on England’s handling of the pandemic,” said Green. In other words, something that will likely become a test-case of whether Westminster and Whitehall really do “know best.”

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