In another world, Boris Johnson calls an urgent cabinet meeting on 16 March and says this: “Look, this virus means our strategy is in ruins. We need a hard, fast, lockdown and I don’t care what the behavioural science says, I believe the British people will do it, and stick with it, if we level with them about the costs. The economic costs are huge – so, Rishi, we are going to do what Trump’s been doing: borrow, print money and spend. I don’t care how much – and we do it over and over, until the virus is gone.”
Michael Gove smirks, Rishi Sunak texts something to Robert Peston, while Dominic Cummings thinks about hitting the fire alarm so he can retake control. Johnson continues…
“Your quizzical faces lead me to think you are sceptical? Because the alternative is, if we muddle through with a mixture of libertarian instinct, opportunist privatisations and disdain for the people who suffer most, the combined economic and social cost will be so high that we will never be in power again…”
There are numerous reasons this didn’t happen. One of them is the failure to imagine Andy Burnham trending on Twitter as #KingOfTheNorth. And yet, here we are.
Two political gambits have changed the situation. The first was Keir Starmer’s dramatic break with Johnson over the lockdown policy. Once it was clear that Johnson had taken a political decision to flout scientific advice, the bipartisan approach was over. Starmer called for an early, two- to three-week, national circuit breaker lockdown.
Sage scientists believe the English regional lockdown system alone will not work. Tier two is hard to understand, difficult to observe and impossible to police. And tier three restrictions, even if fully followed, will probably not be enough to trigger a national peak and fall in the R rate, according to the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance.
The first result of Starmer’s gamble was the outbreak of factional warfare in the Tory party. Sunak has briefed Tory MPs that there could not be further national lockdowns because there is no money left. Meanwhile, Gove’s people were quick to brief the Telegraph that there would probably be a national lockdown soon.
The second result is this week’s Manchester rebellion. Journalists have wasted hours trying to insert a cigarette paper between Burnham and Starmer over it, but the crack’s not there.
The mayor of Greater Manchester, like the Labour leader, wants a national circuit breaker lockdown and a fully funded furlough scheme. But as long as there is not one, his duty as elected mayor, representing close to three million people, is to ensure equity and social justice in the imposition of a regional lockdown. Burnham did this by interrogating the government’s figures on hospital admissions and demanding a £90m funding boost from central government. In pursuit of the money he withheld consent.
Burnham then did what no Labour politician has done since last September’s prorogation crisis: he broke with the polite language of penitence that front-bench politicians have been using since Labour’s December 2019 defeat, and spoke the language of class and struggle. That he did so unscripted, in an anorak in the streets of Manchester, an image simultaneously evoking Britpop and the Peterloo Massacre, made his press conferences go viral.
[See also: Andy Burnham interview: “The problem now is, to a large degree, the Chancellor”]
Burnham’s words spoke to the yawning gulf in representation this pandemic has created in the UK. I wrote last week about its formal deficits: the mechanisms of democratic accountability are out of kilter. I can be banned from driving to Wales but not to Liverpool; Wetherspoons can stay open but my local shebeen cannot; I can vote for Sadiq Khan to run the London transport system (the London mayor’s main source of power) but the Tories can seize control of it and hike fares.
But there’s a deeper, social mismatch of power, which Burnham identified. People on the minimum wage cannot live on two-thirds of it, especially when it is a mixture of unconditional state handouts and Universal Credit. People in cramped apartments, who cannot afford laptops, cannot homeschool their children. For people in towns where Pret and Starbucks don’t exist, the only “third space” between home and work is the pub, which under tier three rules has to close.
Overshadowing the regional lockdown crisis is the bigger fiasco of Test and Trace. Despite a budget of £12bn, its impact has been described by Sage as “marginal”, and the reason is clear. It is a wanton experiment in free-market ideology, run by politically appointed incompetents, and it has failed.
Worse, its existence as a high-profile national body, absorbing other public health bodies like a black hole absorbs matter, now conflicts with the Tory strategy of lumping the costs and responsibilities of the virus on to regions. If there is not enough money to give Manchester £90m, then the cost of rectifying the mess created by Cummings and Dido Harding is likely impossible to meet.
We’re entering a tough winter, which, when it ends, will demand a political reckoning. That reckoning will come not just via opinion polls, but in the election of city and regional mayors, and twice the normal number of local councillors.
If I were a Labour strategist that is exactly where I would want it to be. I would want the mailshot throughout the entire north and north Midlands to show my candidate standing with Burnham, defiant against the north-hating Tories who conned the electorate in 2019.
There is a lesson for the Labour front bench from Burnham’s revolt. Voters want to see a competent, non-chaotic Labour leader, who is more interested in their worries than his own obsessions. And they’ve seen it in Starmer. But this is also a time for passion and connection.
The Andy Burnham who served as a junior minister under Tony Blair was just as technocratic as some on today’s Labour front bench. It was the experience of the Hillsborough inquest, his struggle over social care while health secretary, and the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing that produced the passion, connection and authority with which Burnham represented Manchester this week. Authority and connection are achieved in struggle.
The north-south divide is not a figment of our embittered imaginations. Britain is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the world. With power concentrated around a privately educated financial elite, every crisis spontaneously replicates the power asymmetry between London, the south east and the rest.
For Johnson, the danger is not that the political situation becomes the Tories versus Manchester. It is that it becomes the Tories against everyone except Dom, Dido and their mates in private equity.
This is not just a crisis of regional representation but of class and cultural representation. As every news bulletin becomes a parade of incompetence and obfuscation, people look at the contestants on programmes such as Strictly or Bake Off, and wonder why the selection process in politics cannot also produce such a rich mix of talented and expressive people from the working and lower-middle classes.
They know the answer is money and privilege – and for the most part they shrug their shoulders so long as the elite displays competence and compassion. But there is no competence and no compassion left in the Johnson machine. If the “keep buggering on” approach was enough to defend the British people from this virus, it would have worked by now.