Is Andy Burnham a lockdown sceptic? He pointed in that direction last weekend, when he said that “protecting health is about more than controlling the virus…people’s mental health now is pretty low”.
A few days before, he was more specific, along with his deputy mayors and other Greater Manchester leaders: “we are not convinced that closing hospitality venues is the only way to protect hospitals”, they wrote.
He also complains that the Government is “asking us to gamble our residents’ jobs, homes and businesses and a large chunk of our economy on a strategy that their own experts tell them might not work”.
But if Keir Starmer had his way, Greater Manchester’s schools would close for a fortnight or more; even pubs that serve “substantial means” would shut; the damage to homes, mental health and businesses would rise further.
Burnham is vulnerable on this point, and knows it – which is why in a letter last weekend he said gnomically that “we have doubts about whether level three will bring down the number of cases”.
That can be read to mean that a total shutdown is indeed needed; it can also be read to mean that severe lockdown measures don’t work.
Either way, it is striking that the Greater Manchester Mayor has not settled with the Government where other local Labour leaders have.
We would love to be a fly on the wall in the office of Joe Anderson, Mayor of Liverpool, who did reach agreement with Ministers, and listen to what he and some of his Labour colleagues elsewhere are saying about Burnham.
Who would have bet when shutdowns kicked off last March that it would be Manchester rather than Liverpool that would be holding out against the effing Tories?
But that is less surprising when one looks more closely at the politics of the city. And it helps to explain why the political pressure this morning is on Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak – not Burnham.
For whereas Liverpool, and indeed Merseyside, is uniformally red (with the exception of Southport), substantial bits of Greater Manchester turned blue last year.
The Conservatives won Heywood and Middleton, to the north of the urban area, and Leigh in the west – the seat formerly held by Burnham himself.
They also took Bolton North-East, and both the Bury seats. Furthermore, have a look at how close the Party came in other bits of the aea.
As we pointed out last year, it came within three thousand votes, in each constituency, of snatching Oldham East & Saddleworth and Stalybridge & Hyde.
In Worsley & Eccles South, Labour’s majority was 3,219; in Ashton under Lyne, 4,263. The Conservatives weren’t that far off actually gaining a majority of Greater Manchester seats.
At a local level, most of the city itself is solidly Labour (though this isn’t true throughout Greater Manchester: Bolton council has been Tory-controlled since last year).
But at a national one, much of the Manchester urban area is now in play for Growing The Majority, at least if last December’s election is any guide to the present and future (and if the possibility remains open).
Burnham’s struggle with the Government should therefore be seen in a wider context than the Coronavirus only: Manchester is a proxy for the whole former Red Wall. And today, the Mayor is on the front foot.
For he can blur the tensions and contradictions in his own position by deploying that most dog-eared of political cards: the demand for more money.
By shouting for it, he can at once seek to portray Johnson – or rather Sunak, who is Labour’s real target – as anti-Manchester and himself, Game of Thrones Rob Stark-style, as “King of the north!…King of the north!”
Even more to the point, he and local Labour can work to split Greater Manchester’s Conservative MPs from the Government and each other.
There are signs that this strategy is working. On the first point, have a look at Hansard. Even such loyal backbenchers as Mary Robinson, Cheadle’s MP, are pressing for borough-by-borough tiering.
Meanwhile, six Greater Manchester Tory MPs – Robinson, Chris Clarkson, James Daly, James Grundy, Mark Logan and Christian Wakeford – have rallied round and signed a joint letter attacking Burnham.
But, on that second point, it is worth clocking whose signatures are not on the missive. These include Graham Brady. “I think Michael Gove needs to pick up the phone to Sir Graham,” Burnham tweeted gleefully on Sunday.
He and the Chancellor of the Duchy had just clashed on The Andrew Marr Show. The Greater Manchester Mayor’s tweet linked to a report of Brady suggesting that local political leaders are united against the Government.
What he had actually said was that Greater Manchester’s political leaders are united against the Government attempts to impose Tier Three restrictions without scientific evidence and financial support.
Nonetheless, there are differences among local Tory MPs – but not so much over Burham as over the virus. Some, like Brady, William Wragg and Chris Green, are lockdown sceptics.
Green went so far last week as to resign from the Government as a PPS, and set out his reasons for doing so in an article on this site.
Others are not. Today, Labour will seek to rub salt into these wounds during Opposition Day debates. What should the Government do now?
Once again, the politics of the business have been poorly handled. There was confusion yesterday about whether the £60 million that the Government is offering Greater Manchester is still on the table.
Ministers and the Government machine were slow to pin that detail down, so leaving Burnham to make the running. Should they simply close the gap between that and the £65 million that the Mayor is asking for?
The obvious moral of the story is that Johnson needs a strategic escape from the competing pressures he finds himself under – from Starmer calling for lockdowns and Brady (and other Tories) calling for loosenings.
As long as these continue, the Prime Minister widens the toughest tiers and deepens their provisions, and local authorities consequently call for more money to deal with the consequeneces, he is trapped.
His hope is that new tests rescue his test and trace plan, persuade Conservative MPs to rally round, and effectively get Covid-19 under control.
We also hope this works, fear that it won’t, and think it would be prudent in either event for the Government to publish assessments of the economic and healthcare consequences of lockdowns, restrictions and the virus itself.
Johnson needs to broaden and widen the political conversation to the wider consequences of all these these, in terms of damage to both lives and livelihoods, if he is to stand a chance of winning through.
As far as Manchester is concerned, common sense would suggest paying up now and getting out fast – that’s to say, beginning to prepare voters for a change of course.
In Game of Thrones, Rob Stark eventually meets a bloody end. But he wins every battle he fights. Burham is also outwitting the Government this morning.
The grisly spectacle ahead is of he and the Chancellor, together with the latter’s future prospects, being buried this winter beneath an avalanche of public money – of doubtful practical utility, to no durable political gain.