In Depth

Boris vs. Burnham: is Manchester heading into lockdown with multimillion payout?

PM reportedly hoping to suppress northern coronavirus rebellion with cash handouts

Five years ago, Andy Burnham was licking his wounds after losing his Labour leadership bid to the insurgent Jeremy Corbyn.

But as mayor of Greater Manchester, Burnham (pictured above) is now causing the type of trouble for the Conservative government that he could only have dreamed of triggering from the opposition dispatch box.

Amid growing protests from the North over tougher coronavirus restrictions, Boris Johnson is “ready to offer tens of millions of pounds” to end a revolt that is seeing key Tory backbenchers siding with the Labour mayor, The Times says. 

So is Manchester set to head into lockdown with a hefty payout - or is Johnson’s battle with Burnham heading into another round?

Boris’s bung

Johnson has been told by Rishi Sunak that the Treasury “will not stand in the way if more cash is required to get a deal over the line” with Burnham, says the Financial Times (FT).

The chancellor is reportedly “preparing to release” tens of millions in an effort to end to the deadlock and convince northern leaders backing Burnham to U-turn on their refusal to put their regions into the highest level of Covid lockdown.

The Manchester mayor yesterday held talks with Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, Edward Lister, that were described as “constructive”.

All the same, the war of words between Downing Street and the mayor’s office kicked up a notch, with Burnham accusing Westminster of “exaggerating” the emergency, while Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove called on the Labour politician to stop “posturing”.

Meanwhile, “Johnson also faces increasing anger from some of his own MPs at the prospect of Manchester facing tougher measures”, The Telegraph says.

Blue-on-blue conflict broke out on social media after 20 Tory MPs from areas with low infection rates wrote to Burnham urging him to accept Tier 3 status. The MPs were “subjected to four-letter abuse on an WhatsApp group from their own colleagues”, who said they were “shafting” them to curry favour with No. 10, the paper reports.

Graham Brady, chair of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, is among the Tories backing Burnham. “We simply haven’t been given the evidence that it would be effective,” Brady told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House show on Sunday.

Liverpool was given just under £50m when the city’s leaders agreed to Tier 3 status and commentators have suggested that Manchester, which has double the population of Merseyside, could receive up to twice as much in support. But with divisions opening up on the Tory side of the Commons, Johnson cannot pay off all of his critics.

Crisis point

The PM could avoid having to find a solution to the ongoing impasse in Manchester if the rate of coronavirus infections there increases to a level at which Burham is unable to downplay the scale of the emergency.

Newly leaked figures from the Greater Manchester Critical Care Network (GMCCN) suggest that “some of the region’s 12 hospitals were running out of space on Friday”, Sky News reports.

The data shows that the Stepping Hill Hospital and the Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust are already “operating at full capacity”, while “Royal Bolton Hospital was running at 94% capacity”, the broadcaster says.

Across the Greater Manchester region, hospitals were at an average of 82% capacity, with a GMCCN source telling Sky News that the NHS usually defines “at capacity” as being when 85% of beds are filled, not 100%.

The NHS said in a statement that healthcare bosses were “monitoring the situation with our hospital admissions, overall beds and ITU beds very very closely”.

As the health crisis continues to unfold, the spiralling number of occupied beds will weaken Burnham’s hand in negotiations with No. 10.

Impasse breaker

Burnham has called for a Commons vote to settle the fight over the level of financial aid for areas under the strictest Tier 3 restrictions.

In a letter to Johnson, Keir Starmer and other party leaders yesterday, Burnham argued that “establishing clear national entitlements of the kind we had during the first lockdown will create a sense of fairness”.

A transparent system “would help build public support for, and compliance with, any new restrictions”, the Manchester mayor continued. But the sticking point remains his demand for “similar terms to the financial package afforded to the whole country back in March”.

Sunak is opposed to increasing the support for furloughed workers in Tier 3 areas from 66% of their wages to 80%, and is instead “looking to offer the region a discretionary pot of money” that local leaders can distribute, the FT reports.

The chancellor is “anxious not to set a precedent for huge extra expenditure as more areas” are put into the high-risk category, adds the paper. A government source said: “Rishi made it clear to No. 10 that we can’t hand out loads of cash to everyone.” 

Further complicating the dispute, five of Greater Manchester’s nine Conservative MPs wrote to Burnham on Sunday saying that they are “deeply concerned” about his support for a “circuit breaker” lockdown. Burnham is backing Labour leader Starmer over the strategy, but the local Tories described it as “extreme and poorly thought out”. 

The show of resistance may give Team Johnson added confidence in the staring contest over Tier 3 measures.

But the letter to Burnham also included a commitment from Conservative MP Chris Clarkson to “work cross-party” with the mayor to ensure the “best possible package is reached” for Greater Manchester - a pledge that highlights the need for the PM to contain the rising Tory rebellion.

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