Boris Johnson went nuclear on Manchester.
The U.K. prime minister risked a political and public backlash as he imposed coronavirus restrictions on the region from Friday morning following a furious dispute with local leaders.
Mayors, council leaders and MPs, including Conservatives, had argued the extra measures, including shutting pubs that do not serve full meals, would be ineffective and strangle local economies.
The government held tense negotiations with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, from the opposition Labour Party, who called for more support for businesses and workers who would be impacted by new restrictions.
But Johnson said the demands were “out of kilter” with the settlements offered to other northern regions that have been put into harsher measures.
“Over the last 10 days, we have sought to agree an approach with local leaders in Greater Manchester,” Johnson told a press conference on Tuesday night. “Unfortunately, agreement hasn’t been reached.”
He added: “Given the public health situation, I must now proceed with moving Greater Manchester, as I say, to the Very High alert level. Because not to act would put Manchester’s NHS, and the lives of many of Manchester’s residents, at risk.”
The move sets down a marker to local leaders that despite warm words about devolution, central government will act via force if needed.
Johnson said the region would be given £22 million to support local economies, and would get help from the government in boosting its local coronavirus contact tracing efforts.
Burnham was reported to have asked for £90 million in support at first before lowering his demand to £65 million, but the highest offer the government made was £60 million.
Downing Street insisted the £60 million, which it pointed out was comparable to sums agreed with other regions seeing greater restrictions, remained on the table, subject to conditions.
But during his own press conference earlier in the afternoon, Burnham said that the government was engaged in “a deliberate act of leveling down.”
That was a shot across the bows of Downing Street, which insists its aim is to “level up” the whole nation and even out opportunities across the U.K.
Burnham said the cash offered was not enough to “protect the poorest people in our communities” and argued that without more money, the tighter measures “would be certain to increase levels of poverty, homelessness and hardship.”
The wider Labour Party rammed home the argument that northern towns — many of which helped propel Johnson to office, and will be crucial political battlegrounds ahead of the next election — were being forgotten.
“The Conservatives have been treating local communities, particularly in the Midlands, North West and North East, and their leaders with contempt,” said Labour’s national leader Keir Starmer. “Labour recognize the need for stricter public health restrictions. However, that must be accompanied by extra financial support.”
But for the prime minister, the more immediate threat will be from his Conservative backbenches, which had also fought against increased restrictions. “The sense of failure is overwhelming,” William Wragg, the MP for Hazel Grove, wrote on Twitter.
“I am disappointed that this lockdown has been imposed and I don’t believe the science supports this action,” Bolton MP Chris Green wrote on Facebook. However, he said he would not seek to undermine the rules. “I think the health and economic impact will be damaging to our community but we have to do all we can to respect these rules since they have been imposed,” he said.
Hoping to pounce on local Conservative opposition to the measures, Labour said it would a force a vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday demanding “a fair deal” for regions facing the highest restrictions.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth told MPs on Tuesday night: “This is a national crisis. And we won’t …
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