Keir Starmer has made life difficult for Boris Johnson this week with his demand for a circuit-breaker lockdown. But the Labour leader’s colleague Andy Burnham is currently presenting a far greater threat to the Prime Minister. On Thursday, the Mayor of Manchester gave a furious speech in which he accused the government of being ‘willing to sacrifice jobs here to save them elsewhere’ while treating his area like ‘canaries in the coalmine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy’. The government, he argued, was treating the North with ‘contempt’ by telling regional leaders there wasn’t enough money to protect jobs during the new restrictions while spending large sums on consultants for the test and trace programme.
His language about ‘experimental’ strategies will remind many of the poll tax, which the SNP and other campaigners in Scotland still like to remind people was piloted in their nation. It will also remind some in the North West of those in the Thatcher government who argues Liverpool should be left to suffer an era of ‘managed decline’. The Mayor underlined this parallel by claiming that ‘the North stands on the brink, back to where we were in the 1980s, where we were just pushed aside’.
This will be intensely annoying for the Tories, not least because they created the mayoral post that Burnham now occupies. He is also enjoying far more clout than he ever did in Westminster where he was often mocked by his own Labour colleagues for flip-flopping on policies, taking credit for others’ hard work on campaigns, and for claiming to represent the whole of the North, as though the different regions can really be lumped together into one gravy-covered mass. But Covid has changed things for everyone, including Burnham. He sees an opportunity now to paint this government — which had hoped to be the Conservative administration remembered for ‘levelling up’ the North — as not really caring about economies outside London and the South East. The Conservative brand is still sufficiently fragile in many parts of the North for Burnham’s words to have quite an effect.
But what has really supercharged Burnham’s argument is that even the local Conservative MPs agree with him. They are particularly unhappy after a disastrous Zoom meeting with minister Helen Whately in which they felt their concerns were being ignored. On Thursday, Hazel Grove MP William Wragg said in the Commons: ‘I bring news from Greater Manchester where the impossible has been achieved: all the Members of Parliament, the leaders of the councils and indeed the Mayor are surprisingly in agreement with one another — but the meeting that we had earlier today was entirely pointless. I might as well have been talking to the wall.’
While local politicians argue that there is not nearly enough support for jobs in their areas, ministers are struggling to explain the evidence for thinking that these new restrictions will seriously cut the rate of infection. And so there is a real risk that Burnham goes from being a slightly comical political figure to one who stirs up a great deal of anger. Johnson currently thinks that avoiding a national lockdown will keep the economy afloat. But as both Burnham and his own MPs have shown, there are still serious economic and political consequences to the new tiered system that could make his levelling up’ ambitions sound like a joke by the time we reach the next election.
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