You’d have thought that if anyone was capable of brokering a financial deal between central government and Greater Manchester it would have been the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick. After all, Honest Bob has a track record of magicking money out of thin air. Just weeks after sharing a table with the pornographer turned property developer, Richard Desmond, Honest Bob had unlawfully overturned a planning permission refusal on the Westferry development to save Dirty Des £45m with just a day to spare.
But this time there was no deal to be had. Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, along with other local leaders, had calculated that £90m was the minimum the region needed to boost the lowest paid workers to 80% of their former salaries after being moved into tier 3 lockdown restrictions.
That would take the region through to the end of the current financial year. No one is now even bothering to pretend that any region will move down a coronavirus tier in under six months.
Honest Bob shook his head. No can do. Not even if Greater Manchester were to make a small donation to the Tory party in gratitude. The best he could offer was £55m. Burnham reduced his demands to £65m, the bare minimum he reckoned he could get by on without people starving on the streets. Honest Bob checked his pockets and found another £5m. But that was his final offer.
Come on, said Burnham, some of the consultants who were brought in to set up the test-and-trace system that doesn’t work will have trousered up to £6,000 a day. And what about the £25m hardship fund that Honest Bob’s junior minister had handed over to Jenrick’s own Newark constituency? Even though Newark only ranked 270th on the deprivation list.
Surely there must be another £5m where that came from. Honest Bob shook his head. Sadly he had to take care of his junior minister’s own constituency, so there was no more money from that source – £60m was as far as he would go. There would be no extra £5m. And with that he broke off talks at around 2pm.
A couple of hours later Burnham gave an informal press conference on the street outside Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. His dress was casual – black shirt, black hair, black shoes, Sweet Gene Vincent – but his performance was white-hot. A passionate take down of the government in a few well-formed sentences.
For the sake of £5m Boris Johnson was prepared to grind the least well-paid workers into poverty. All the talk of a levelling-up agenda had been just bullshit. The real agenda was levelling down. A government that had talked at the beginning of the pandemic about doing “whatever it takes” had switched to the punishment beating of “whatever you get”.
Manchester had done everything that had been asked of it and was now getting shat upon. It had, to all intents and purposes, been in tier 2 since the end of July and that had not worked. So now it was being forced into a tier 3 that even the chief medical office and chief scientific adviser did not expect to be effective.
So if the region was going to be forced into measures it didn’t believe would help stop the virus spreading, the least the government could do was offer an appropriate level of financial support. But we were where we were. All the manic street preacher could do was urge people to observe the rules and hope that MPs in northern constituencies remembered that if they tolerated this then their people would be next.
Anyone hoping that Johnson’s own Downing Street press conference at 5pm would help clear things up was in for disappointment. Even by Boris’s own standards of shambolic incompetence this was something special. Glib, evasive and mendacious, it was almost as if he were on a mission to alienate just about every working-class northern Tory whose votes had won him a landslide victory last December. His red-wall MPs will not have been impressed.
Five times Johnson was asked the one question everyone wanted answered. Would Manchester still be getting the minimum of £60m that Honest Bob had offered earlier in the day? And five times Boris was unable to give a straight answer, either mumbling something about the £22m already underwritten for test and trace, muttering about universal credit and other unspecified pots of money, or saying that he couldn’t offer a better deal to Manchester than he had to Liverpool or Lancashire. Even though no one from any of these areas had ever suggested that he might.
“My door remains open to Andy Burnham,” Boris said, hastily avoiding the question of whether he had actually visited anywhere in the north-west in the past few weeks to see how people were getting by. Given that he had been the one to shut the door on Burnham, that last piece of information must have come as a shock to the Greater Manchester mayor.
But then most of Britain was in shock. It was almost as if this was Johnson’s way of saying he had given up. On himself and the country. An admission that he was the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time. How else do you explain a prime minister declaring war on the north-west for the sake of what in Covid-19 bailout terms was loose change?