And so to Downing Street for Deal or No Deal – Covid Edition. For the last week, Boris Johnson’s team has been trying to agree lockdown measures with mayors across the north of England. Now the prime minister had had enough, and he was going to get tough.
“Greater Manchester will move to the very high alert level,” Johnson said, forcing his eyes wide in the manner of the very tired. “Pubs and bars must close.”
Earlier in the day he’d offered Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham £60 million of regional funding in an effort to secure agreement. Burnham had wanted more, and so now, Johnson said, the region was getting £22 million. Take that, King of the North! As Michael Corleone said to a politician who tried to shake him down, “My offer to you is this: nothing.”
It remains to be seen whether Burnham is going to wake up covered with blood. Any horses the mayor owns should ensure their stable doors are shut tonight.
Perhaps this will have the desired effect of bringing Burnham, and other mayors, to their knees. It seems a strange approach to parts of the country that, less than a year ago, Johnson’s team were busy assuring us they understood better than the Labour Party. But maybe the thing Downing Street has learned from all those focus groups is that northerners really do love being miserable.
Burnham may be playing this for political advantage, but that’s what politicians do
If so, that’s a good thing, because as the science bit of Tuesday’s show had told us, the picture is pretty grim at the moment. Jonathan Van Tam, or “JVT,” as Johnson insisted on calling him, was the evening’s designated geek. He had graphics, lots of them, all with a single message: the virus is spreading hard across the north of England, and it’s moving up through the age bands. “I think it’s pretty stark,” JVT (what will he be next week? Jay-Van? Tam-meister? Jeevy-Teevy?) said.
Next slide. “The prime minister asked me to focus a little on Greater Manchester,” Tam The Man said. I bet the prime minister did, too. This was science briefing as punishment beating, each slide bearing a message more miserable than the last.
In Manchester, Burnham got the news while he was in front of the camera, giving him the chance to respond from his gut. “It’s brutal, to be honest, isn’t it?” he said. “They should not be doing this, grinding people down, trying to accept the least that they can get away with.”
Back in London, Johnson denied that he was trying to bully Burnham. “We wanted a deal,” he said. “That was the best way forward, but we had to take action.”
Tories may be right when they mutter that Burnham is playing this for political advantage, but, well, that’s what politicians do. Even leaders as idealistic and pure as Johnson have been known now and then to exploit situations for their own ends. Their opponents don’t have to make it easy for them, but that’s what the government is doing at the moment. If Manchester ends up getting its £60 million, it will now be a victory for Burnham, rather than a show of solidarity from Johnson.
In his final question, Johnson was asked why he hadn’t visited Manchester in recent weeks, to see the situation for himself. There might be good answers: travelling around the country isn’t really the thing at the moment, but he ignored the question. Maybe it was too sad a reminder of the happy times at the start of his premiership, when he’d travelled around in a high-vis vest, seeing the sights, pointing at things, all while Dominic Cummings ran the country.
Perhaps worried that he’d overdone the grim, the prime minister tried to close the press conference on an optimistic note. He wanted, he said, “to give everybody hope.” Was he going to announce another testing moonshot? Promise again that it’d all be over by Christmas? Fortunately not. Apparently even in Downing Street they’ve learned that these promises no longer sound as good as they once did. Instead, he gave a simpler pledge, that the virus would be controlled “if we all follow the guidance together, and everybody gets together.”
But only outdoors, and in groups of less than six.
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