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Should all England be a Greater Manchester?

Neither Starmer nor Johnson know if local lockdowns are any more effective than national lockdowns. But both have dug-in to their positions.

Keir Starmer has honed his technique for PMQs. He begins with a short and simple question, expecting the prime minister to give an incomplete and insufficient answer. Successive questions then attempt to pin Boris Johnson down on that inadequacy whilst, each time, revealing a little more of the case that Labour seeks to develop as an alternative.

Today’s Commons exchange witnessed this ratchet technique at its highest stage of evolution. The leader of the Opposition began with the simple one liner, “How does an area which goes into Tier 3 restrictions get out of those restrictions?” Each successive question got longer and more complicated until the final one weighed-in at just shy of two minutes to deliver. Indeed, it was scarcely a question, more a short speech articulating Labour’s approach, to which the prime minister was invited to agree.

It is a strategy that is often effective – particularly when Boris Johnson’s inattention to detail reduces him to bluster. But when the prime minister has his mojo back, as he did today, Starmer has the difficulty of sustaining the logical progression of questions that made sense in his preparations but have been overtaken by the unforeseeable calamity of Johnson having his wits about him and his folder of statistics in front of him.

Starmer tries to cover this by affecting to be surprised or, as he claimed today, “confused” by prime ministerial responses that are, with a fair wind, not especially foggy. Today, Johnson replied to the first question about how a Tier 3 area gets its restrictions lifted by saying the “simplest and most effective” way was “to get the R down below 1 or below.” This is hardly an encouraging answer, but it is at least a direct response to a direct question. When pushed in the first follow-up about whether that was all, he replied that “rates of infection, rates of admission to hospital and other data” were also taken into account and Tier 3 status gets reviewed every 28 days.

It did not impress Sir Keir, who proceeded to remind the House that “on Friday the Chief Scientific Officer said Tier 3 on its own certainly isn’t enough to get the R rate below 1.” By imposing Tier 3 locally, the government had caused “agony” for the people of Greater Manchester to which there was not a “clear exit.” By now Starmer’s voice was raised, imploring the government to “stop bargaining with peoples’ lives; stop dividing communities; and provide the support that is needed in Manchester.”

the unforeseeable calamity of Johnson having his wits about him and his folder of statistics in front of him.

Whether it was Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, who was the hard-bargainer or Johnson, the prime minister was not going to accept the charge that Greater Manchester was being sacrificed without support. The government had given businesses in the metropolitan area £1.1 billion in support, provided £200 million in extra non-ringfenced funding, £50 million to tackle infections in Manchester’s care homes and £20 million for test and trace. On chip bargaining, it was Burnham who had lost, by refusing to accept a further £50 million, so the government would bypass him and distribute the money directly to the area’s boroughs instead.

This brought out Starmer’s often suppressed emotional side: the prime minister could find £43 million for a garden bridge that was never built across the Thames, but not £5 million for Greater Manchester. “The Prime Minister has crossed a Rubicon” – the leader of the Opposition thundered – “not just with the miserly way he has treated Greater Manchester” but by a divide and rule approach that pitted “region against region, mayor against mayor, council against council, asking them to trade away their businesses and jobs.”

The standoff between Andy Burnham and the government has been too partisan and binary a division for Starmer not to rise to the bait. No leader of the Labour party is going to tell Labour’s man in Manchester that his brinkmanship had run its course. If it had been a Tory shire resisting in this way, Labour’s sympathy for such local pluck in the face of a consuming virus might have been more qualified.

But Labour solidarity and the narrative that the Tory south is prepared to let an area of the north that still elects a Labour mayor go swing risks undermining a wider message that Starmer is trying to convey, namely that he leads the party prepared to take the “whatever it takes” action to defeat the virus.

If Starmer’s advocacy for the circuit break has achieved anything, it is to reduce the odds of the government adopting it

Starmer maintains that the three tier system will not work. What is needed is a “one nation approach, replacing these endless local battles with clear national criteria and proper support for jobs”. That includes a two to three-week circuit break for all of England, commencing this Friday to coincide with schools’ half-term. In imposing this, England should follow Wales, Northern Ireland and “in part” Scotland.

If Starmer’s advocacy for the circuit break has achieved anything, it is to reduce the odds of the government adopting it. Last week Johnson pointedly refused to rule anything out and a government source was quoted as suggesting the likelihood of an England-wide circuit break being introduced was in the ballpark of 80 percent. If that was the expectation, the prime minister’s performance today suggested it is not his.

“It is the height of absurdity that he stands up and attacks the economic consequences of the measures we are obliged to take in some parts of the country” the prime minister concluded, pointing at the Labour leader, “when he wants to turn the lights out with a full national lockdown.” It was rich of Starmer to imply that there was no exit strategy for moving Tier 3 areas back to Tier 2 or Tier 2 to Tier 1, when “he can’t say how many circuit breaks are necessary or how long they would go on.”

An Opposition strategy to shut the country down without knowing if it will work and how often it may need to to be repeated is pitted against a government strategy of shutting down parts of the country without knowing if doing so will work or for how long such areas will be locked down. That is the choice that England, at least, is now being offered.

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