David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
Who would have believed that we would see a mainstream, liberal MP turned city mayor taking a bold political risk, build an unlikely coalition of support and win a public relations battle by articulating the resentment of those who feel victims of an out of touch London establishment?
Boris Johnson has had a difficult couple of weeks, but I hope he has enjoyed the irony of being on the wrong side of Andy Burnham’s somewhat populist revolt.
The extended row with the Mayor of Greater Manchester has put the Government on the back foot, looking mean-spirited and out of touch, whilst Burnham has come across as a heroic ‘King of the North’ – personable, passionate and articulate, he has successfully presented himself as a doughty defender of hard-pressed Mancunians.
He has had a political triumph – although the coherence of his position does not withstand a great deal of scrutiny. As Paul Goodman has pointed out, Burnham’s language, attacking an approach that ‘might not work’, was designed to appeal to those who thought that the new restrictions did not go far enough, as well as the likes of Sir Graham Brady, who want to adopt a very different strategy.
Even though he has made the valid point that lockdowns cause mental health problems, it does not seem likely that Burnham is a lockdown sceptic himself.
In May, he expressed the view that lockdown restrictions were being relaxed too quickly, appropriate for the position in London but not for Manchester.
More recently, he has expressed support for Keir Starmer’s call for a tighter, national lockdown. It is safe to assume that he believes the mainstream and, to my mind, rather commonsensical view that if you reduce the number of social interactions people have, there will be less chance for the virus to spread.
If that is the case, and given his criticism that the Tier Two restrictions which have been in place in Manchester since August have not stopped the spread of the virus, it is remarkable that he spent ten days resisting the imposition of tougher and more effective restrictions in Greater Manchester, where infection rates were high and, in eight out of ten boroughs, rising.
No doubt his supporters will make the argument that he was not opposing tougher restrictions – just tougher restrictions on the cheap.
But again, one can question whether his position was coherent. It is true to say that the level of support in Tier Three – the focus of his complaints – is not as generous as was available under the original lockdown.
But the real issue for many businesses was not the support available under Tier Two for those businesses forced to close, but the absence of support for businesses in Tier Two, where restrictions meant that hospitality businesses could stay open, but with little prospect of many customers. This was the real problem with Government support, until the Chancellor’s announcement on Thursday.
So a not unfair description of Burnham’s position was that Tier Two was ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus and involved inadequate support for businesses, but that he was determined to keep Greater Manchester within it.
There is also some confusion about his view on whether lockdown restrictions should be determined on a local or national basis.
He has argued that decisions should be made by those close to the ground but, back in the spring, he was opposed to London exiting lockdown before Manchester, because people there would object to seeing Londoners in pubs when they were still banned from going for a pint – suggesting that he favours national uniformity.
Given that he was also opposed to the national exit from lockdown because it did not reflect conditions in Manchester, he presumably favours a national policy based on conditions in Manchester – which is all very well but somewhat hard to justify to the rest of the country.
That he was able to turn such a position into a political triumph is a testament to clumsy handling on the part of the Government (appearing to withdraw the £60 million that had been offered) as well as Burnham’s political skills. He has tapped into northern distrust of the south, articulating the view that the interests of Manchester are treated as a lower priority to those of London.
In doing this, he is taking a leaf from the SNP in Scotland. The politics of national and regional resentment and grievance, the argument that ‘the system’ is designed to support the prosperous South East at the expense of the rest, is one that finds a ready audience in many parts of the UK.
‘If it wasn’t for a distant government in Westminster, taking our resources, we would be doing alright’ is the message of Scottish Nationalists, as well as regional mayors.
In purely fiscal terms this is, of course, nonsense. Contrary to the received wisdom of many parts of the UK, resources are massively redistributed from London and the Greater South East to the rest of the United Kingdom. In the last year for which numbers are available, 2019, London, the South East and the East of England had fiscal surpluses of £39 billion, £22 billion and £4 billion respectively which only partially offset fiscal deficits in the rest of the UK, including a deficit of £20 billion in the North West and £15 billion in Scotland.
This is not an argument that the Government is likely to be making any time soon. After all, the Conservative majority at the last election was heavily dependent upon the narrative that the Government was going to ‘level up’ the country, correcting the perceived London-centric nature of our economy and politics.
Tapping into anger at metropolitan elites proved very helpful to Boris Johnson in both the EU referendum and the 2019 general election; this week, that anger was turned against him as he was made to look like a representative of the establishment, not the insurgency.
The idea of localised restrictions has not been discredited, however painful local negotiations have been. This is the logical approach to a virus where the level of infection varies enormously. But the Government has been slow to recognise that localised restrictions will result in resentment if the level of support is seen as parsimonious. And arguments about fiscal discipline will not persuade those new, Red Wall Conservative voters who delivered the Prime Minister his majority.
The bitterness of the row between the Government and the Greater Manchester Mayor, as well as the continued surge in support for the SNP, has been dispiriting.
At best, it reveals that, as we enter a long winter with rising case numbers and deaths and restrictions on our everyday lives, we are becoming more fractious and distrustful of the Government. At worst, it reveals that the whole cohesion of the United Kingdom is starting to disintegrate – not just amongst the nations of the UK but between the regions of England.
If the approach that Burnham has taken is seen to be the exemplar of how regional politicians should operate, and if the Government cannot nullify those regional grievances, our politics will become yet more bitter and divisive. Ultimately, pitting one region against another would make us ungovernable.