SPECIAL REPORT: As ministers have ramped up pressure on leaders and MPs here this week, millions have looked on in incredulity and anxiety. Jen Williams reports on a week of chaos.
Leaders here started out on Monday refusing to accept the government’s proposals for tighter ‘tier three’ lockdown restrictions, after an incandescent and inconclusive meeting with Downing Street on the previous Friday evening.
Tonight the mayor, councils and ministers have still not budged – only now, Boris Johnson has begun ratcheting up the pressure live on TV, accusing Andy Burnham of putting people’s lives at risk.
The turmoil and melodrama that had ensued in between has played out not only in the glare of cameras and national headlines, but also via muttered briefings, tense private meetings and an apparent ‘divide and rule’ northern strategy from the government, as millions of people and businesses here have looked on in incredulity, confusion and, in many cases, deep anger and anxiety.
That row has also tapped into a decades-old resentment towards power exercised by London, a mood that might be viewed with some irony less than a year after the ‘red wall’ election was called.
It opened with the news that Liverpool city region had signed up to ‘tier three’ restrictions over the previous weekend, meaning the government was closing down its pubs in order to stem a fast-rising tide of Covid infections. While leaders there were unhappy about the financial package that came with it, ministers took it as a victory.
Immediately it was clear that government was not going to be taking Greater Manchester’s contrasting intransigence lightly.
The presence of Manchester intensive care expert Jane Eddleston at Monday morning’s TV briefing with the deputy chief medical officer was just one sign that ministers were keen to highlight how pressure is building within the hospital system here. Our ICUs are now 30pc full, she said.
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This would be a key strand of the government’s argument for the rest of the week. In response, Greater Manchester would continue to insist that the government’s solution was ineffective, unfair and damaging.
Ministers were ramping up the pressure, however. Boris Johnson’s statement to the House of Commons shortly afterwards implied northern leaders who refused to play ball would not be ‘forgiven’ if sickness and death ensued. Extra contact tracing money would be, he even suggested, contingent on signing up to the stricter rules.
At Number 10’s evening press conference, Liverpool city region mayor Steve Rotheram was then repeatedly and unsubtly heaped with praise by Boris Johnson – the last national politician any mayor in that neck of the woods wants to be seen fraternising with.
Leaders here waited for a further meeting with government to appear in the diary. None came.
By Tuesday, more than one nervous senior figure here was looking ahead to the risks of what would happen if leaders refused to budge. The answer was obvious to many: ministers would target Andy Burnham specifically – ‘they f***ing despise him’, noted one council leader that afternoon – and would increasingly highlight the direction the Covid numbers in Greater Manchester were headed. The graphs, by anyone’s estimation, are not good.
Asked whether they thought government had set a political trap, another senior official simply replied: “Yes.”
Others, including some MPs, were anxious too. Opposing the measures was a high-stakes approach, they feared, and one that could be quickly overtaken by rising hospital cases and worse.
Meanwhile consensus among Greater Manchester’s leaders was not quite as bulletproof as it looked to the casual observer. They did not agree on the need for an immediate national circuit break, for example, as Sir Keir Starmer found out to his cost after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, they remained united in the view that government’s proposal was wrong, for two main reasons: it was hammering northern workers by failing to compensate them sufficiently, when those affected by the first lockdown received 80pc of their pay; and it might not even work from a public health perspective.
Another senior official puts the economic argument of local leaders this way: “It just fuels the existing inequalities. You could say ‘you can’t do anything about that in a short period of time’ – but they’re not giving us much chance.”
A 5pm meeting the same day with Jonathan Van Tam – intended by ministers to ‘ram home’ the science of the government’s reasoning, according to one Whitehall source quoted nationally – did nothing to win them over.
Leaders and officials simply came away with the sense that even the deputy chief medical officer didn’t, in fact, think that those measures would necessarily do the trick.
“It was yet another data briefing from JVT, who at least showed Greater Manchester data rather than the North West’s, but nothing new,” said one official afterwards, adding that he ‘couldn’t answer the fundamental questions about the health impacts of locking down of the economy and society to save the NHS and keep schools open with an exit strategy or proper funding package’.
The deputy CMO himself also appeared to back the recommendations from the government’s scientific advisory group – which, it turned out, had argued for a short, sharp national lockdown several weeks earlier.
“JVT dropped heavy hints that he agreed with the national circuit break idea and referenced the SAGE recommendations,” they added.
A senior politician present said that questions about any mental health impact, and whether that had been modelled, didn’t get much in the way of an answer.
A meeting with Downing Street was finally expected the following day, the first in six days.
In the background, the pressure and the intensity were taking their toll. “I’m so utterly distressed by all this,” said another official that night. “I know politicians are in the limelight, but behind them are officers who are exhausted.”
Politicians were not about to duck the limelight, however. And as Greater Manchester prepared to dig its heels in further, the national briefings – or leaks, according to some – began in earnest.
On Wednesday night, it was widely reported that Greater Manchester was set to see ‘tier three’ restrictions imposed the following day, with Matt Hancock due to address Parliament the next morning.
An extraordinary and bizarre day was about to unfold, one that saw the battle for media narrative ramp up to fever pitch and Greater Manchester’s stand-off feature at the top of every national news bulletin.
Meetings with local representatives on Thursday morning had been carefully choreographed by the government, even if they were shambolically executed.
Greater Manchester’s leaders were to meet with Downing Street at 10am. MPs here were to be briefed by the Department of Health and Social Care at 10.45am. The health secretary was to stand up and address the Commons, supposedly confirming new restrictions in Greater Manchester and Lancashire, at 11.30am.
So leaders entered their meeting expecting to be told that the new lockdown was going to happen whether they supported it or not. Such was that belief, the mayor’s office organised for Sky News and print journalists to be outside immediately afterwards, ready for a media statement.
What followed was the most bizarre hour of a bizarre week. As leaders inside the 10am leaders’ meeting pushed back at Downing Street and the Treasury, demanding more evidence of the science behind the plans – and a guarantee that everyone affected by hospitality closures would be able to get their pay topped up to 80pc of pay by Universal Credit, an assurance that didn’t seem to be forthcoming – national news outlets were were reporting, one by one, that leaders had now been told their area was going into ‘tier three’.
One senior figure still on the call with Downing Street responded with puzzlement at the time. “That’s not quite right,” they said. In fact, they were in the middle of an argument with the Treasury.
“The Treasury is not willing to shift on the package, which is infuriating, given the money being wasted on management consultants. Basically it’s a trade-off between the national and local economy.”
Another report appeared, this time from Sky News. Inside the meeting, the same senior figure responded with some frustration. “Sky isn’t in this meeting…at least as far as I know,” they replied.
Others on the call simply said the mood was tense and angry, but not that they had been told measures were coming in.
Another national media report landed, this time from the BBC. But the meeting was now drawing to a close and Downing Street’s adviser, Ed Lister, had just told leaders that while the situation had ‘to be sorted today’, nonetheless ‘there will be no imminent decision or announcement made about GM in the house this morning’, according to someone on the call.
Simultaneously Greater Manchester MPs – who if anything were even angrier than the leaders – were also being told, at the 10.45am meeting, that no decision had in fact been made.
So in the space of less than an hour, a slew of headlines had appeared that were categorically wrong. From quite where in government they had emanated is unclear, but the heavy suspicion among local leaders was that the answer is Number 10, since Matt Hancock’s life had been made little easier by the constant anonymous leaks and briefings of the previous week. Whatever had happened, it had done nothing to assuage the bitterness now felt by the local system and MPs alike.
In the latter case, a string of already-furious Tory backbenchers had demanded to know from health minister Helen Whatley why exactly they kept finding things out about their area from the TV.
The apparently carefully-choreographed meetings had also backfired in a second way: Stockport’s Conservative MP William Wragg, also a select committee chair, had not even been invited. He found out about the meeting from a tweet by Gorton’s Labour MP, Afzal Khan.
He vented his fury in a volley of public sarcasm in the Commons an hour or so later.
“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,” he said.
“When are we going to be properly consulted, and learn about measures through the right channels rather than via the media?”
It was not the first time this had happened. The last briefing for Greater Manchester had missed off Wigan’s Labour MP, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy. The one on July 30, when the original restrictions were announced for the conurbation, had been similarly hit-and-miss in its invites, eliciting an equivalent level of fury. The official announcement that night had appeared on Twitter just after 9pm, a communications strategy that has not been forgotten by politicians of either party here.
Meanwhile a briefing for the north east this week had also missed out a number of MPs. Basic administrational dysfunction – or, depending on whose view you take, abject carelessness – was not helping the government’s argument.
Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham seized his opportunity. In contrast to something of a rambling joint press conference the previous afternoon, an attempt to show unity with his friend Steve Rotheram, this time his gambit hit home hard.
On the steps of Central Library, against slate-grey skies and within spitting distance of where the Peterloo Massacre played out just over 200 years earlier, Burnham let leash. To applause in the background, he framed the day as a historic moment, a binary moral cause – his natural territory, from Hillsborough to homelessness.
“This is real,” he said. “The north stands on the brink of being where we were in the 1980s – just forgotten and pushed aside. But we won’t let that happen.”
The optics of the moment, the illusion of immediacy, the dark skies, the northern leaders in anoraks, the applause, the civic architecture, made for a powerful spectacle and several front pages.
The following day, red graffiti appeared scrawled on the Piccadilly Gardens wall, warning: “The north is not a petri dish.” Memes of Burnham as ‘king of the north’ abounded, a joke often expressed, with some bitterness, by politicians in other parts of the north that get less media attention. Greater Manchester, after all, only contains a fifth of northern England’s population.
Nonetheless, the mayor had tapped into something visceral – and government wasn’t slow to notice. The mayor has deeply irritated them over a long period of time, including the belief that he acts in bad faith.
“It’s hard to deal with such a crisis when there’s such bad faith. Intensive care is heading for a blow-up; in the south west it is not.
And it is the hospital data government is – and will be increasingly – relying on for its argument, a point officials here know very well.
Greater Manchester has sought to downplay the situation in its hospital system, arguing that there is sufficient surge capacity for the winter, despite rising Covid numbers. Yet it is a risk, fear many senior health figures and council officials. Admissions are rising fast – not yet as fast as the leaked projections by Public Health England a couple of weeks ago, but nonetheless, new Covid patients were up by two thirds in the past week.
Boris Johnson sought to underline the situation at a Friday press conference, telling journalists that intensive care beds already have 40pc more patients in them than in the April peak. It was a press conference explicitly about Andy Burnham.
“I cannot stress enough, time is of the essence. Each day that passes before action is taken means more people will go to hospital, more people will end up in intensive care and tragically more people will die.”
But as of tonight, there had been no further meetings between Greater Manchester and Number 10.
Meetings with other northern areas had yesterday been prioritised instead, in what has widely been seen as a ‘divide and rule’ approach. While Lancashire had signed up to tier three earlier in the day, Blackpool and Preston councils both later came out and accused the government of ‘bullying’ them into it. In the North East, leaders just refused point blank. The situation in West Yorkshire is yet to be determined.
So that strategy does not appear to have been entirely successful – or at least not yet.
Therefore Greater Manchester ends the week still at the same stalemate, still in the same limbo, but with both the public and the political mood much, much more heated.
Through a political lens, the week has been a clash of the populists. Boris Johnson, once the champion of civic power as London mayor, now at the despatch box. Andy Burnham, once in charge of the health service at the despatch box, now upholding a northern mayoral fiefdom.
In the meantime, thousands upon thousands of people are waiting, anxiously, to know what will happen to their livelihoods. Many more are waiting to see just how dark an already dark winter is likely to look.
There is a risk both sides eventually end up being blamed as a result, the public mood febrile.
But for now, the anger directed at the government is real. However much bad faith the government may level at Andy Burnham, the strength of feeling towards ministers – the fury at months of incompetence and changing rules concluding with the imposition, direct from London, of further life-limiting measures solely in the north – is visceral. It unites left and right, liberal and libertarian, blue collar and white collar. Even the Bishop of Manchester last night staged an intervention, urging ministers to heed leaders here.
The discontent successfully exploited by the Conservatives during last year’s general election in areas like this didn’t vanish when the polls closed and it was certainly apparent this week.
“It’s been slowly brewing for decades,” says one official of the resentment that has erupted in the past few days, a sentiment by no means unique to Greater Manchester.
News – Inside Greater Manchester’s lockdown battle with government