When the first lockdown began, on March 23rd, I don’t recall a single local authority expressing opposition. Even some of the more extreme measures – such as keeping the great majority of pupils away from school – went unchallenged. Local elections were cancelled with scarcely a shrug. Naturally, financial compensation was a subject keenly discussed. But on the substance, there was overwhelming support for restrictions. The only dispute was how they could go further. For instance, in my own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the parks were closed for a while – until it was accepted that this was counterproductive.
The mood is very different now. Council leaders are routinely challenging the “tier” their area has been put in, regarding it as unduly onerous.
Yet within these parameters, there are some stark variations. Even before the current lockdown was announced I found that most Conservative council leaders felt restrictions had gone too far. As they become more exasperated they are increasingly speaking out in public. My understanding is that Conservative MPs contemplating rebellion are usually emboldened by council leaders in their constituencies.
But often it has been Labour councils which have faced demands from the Government for the tightest controls. Conservatives are more likely to live in towns and villages where the population is more spread out. Labour voters tend to inhabit the bustling cities. It is scarcely surprising that the virus is a greater risk to communities in the latter group. There is an appreciation that making an announcement is easy but that implementation is a bit more tricky. So the active support of local authorities is important. Here the response of the Labour leaders in the big cities has varied.
Consider the cases of Manchester and Liverpool. Andy Burnham is the directly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester – he is a “Metro Mayor” whose empire, or “combined authority”, covers not just Manchester City Council but ten local authorities. His behaviour has been frankly duplicitous and exasperating for Ministers. Did he feel restrictions were too tight or too loose? He managed to say both at the same time. There would be staged showdowns for the media but a lack of serious leadership during this period of crisis.
Then we have Joe Anderson, the directly elected Mayor of Liverpool, who has put partisan politics aside. His conclusion is that the Government is justified in applying unprecedented restrictions. He might be wrong, of course. As with all of us, personal experience will have an impact – his brother Bill died of coronavirus in October. What can’t be disputed is his good faith in working with the Government. Not only in acquiescing to restrictions but also in applying the mass testing pilot to his City – which is now to be applied elsewhere.
Reflecting on the political context, this is rather remarkable. Where in England are the Conservative most hated? Surely, one would have to say Liverpool – that city synonymous with socialist militancy. Margaret Thatcher backed Michael Heseltine’s regeneration efforts for the City, after the Toxteth riots. But the Scousers never appeared to be overcome with gratitude. Then, in 2004, there was more trouble when a young Conservative MP called Boris Johnson was sent to the City to apologise. A leader in The Spectator had claimed Liverpudlians were “hooked on grief”. Johnson was the Editor – although he hadn’t actually written the piece.
Anyway, here we are. Of today’s vote by MPs regarding the new rules, Anderson’s vitriol is reserved for those Tory MPs contemplating voting against the Government. He says:
“When I hear this fella arguing we should let covid rip, this little pipsqueak, I say to him, you come up here and work as a porter in the Royal Liverpool Hospital and you see the people that are dying and then tell us we should just allow this to continue and not have a tier structure. You have a shift carrying the bodies up to the mortuary.
“Come up here and talk to the doctors, and nurses like the one who had to ring me at quarter to ten on a Friday night to tell me my brother had died. You do a shift with them, Steve Baker.”
“You have to put the lives of people first. It’s the number one priority. Then, of course, the economy is important. But, first of all, what are you if you don’t prioritise lives?”
That is hugely unfair to Baker and the other “lockdown sceptics.” The premise that the tighter the controls we have, the more lives we save, is disputed. It is not a question of being indifferent to death. Still, at least the Government know where they are with Anderson – while Sir Keir Starmer makes calculations about which division lobby to enter, eventually resolving to abstain.
Government sources I have spoken to, at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government, do not wish to overstate Liverpool’s exceptionalism. “Some of the local government leaders in Manchester have privately been good to work with,” I’m assured. Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council, has a personally “amicable” relationship with the Government. It is Burnham’s “grandstanding” that has been the difficulty.
As Daniel Hannan has said:
“Perhaps we have hit what marathon-runners call ‘the wall’: that moment, around 20 miles into the course, when the stored energy in our muscles runs out, forcing us to a walk. The end is in sight, but our accumulated exhaustion weighs us down.”
General opposition to restrictions is still a minority opinion – though a growing minority. More of a challenge for the Government are the objections regarding consistency. Why are we in Tier Three when we have fewer cases than a neighbouring area which is in Tier Two? Why have we gone up to Tier Two when our number of cases have gone down from when we were in Tier One? Why is x allowed when y is not? A Deltapoll survey for the Mail on Sunday found that 37 per cent felt their local tier “too high”, 56 per cent thought it “about right” and only eight per cent “too low”. Another response to that survey indicated that while 43 per cent of us are in Tier Three, only 25 per cent of us feel that we should be in Tier Three.
No doubt as the vaccines and the Vitamin D pills are distributed, the emergency will ease. As we crank up to elections in May, the normal tribal loyalties and hostilities will reassert themselves. Yet in the time being, we have the irony, that while the Government has managed to dismay so many of their supporters, the Mayor of Liverpool could hardly be more vociferous in backing their cause.