Like a supersub who runs onto the pitch to even the score, Rishi Sunak has come up with what could be another game-changer.
Politically, it comes towards the end of a week in which the team captain was crocked by the shin-kicking Manchester defender, Andy Burnham.
The Chancellor tackled the great northern debacle in his opening words to the Commons: “Let me speak first to the people of Liverpool, Lancashire, South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester … I understand your frustration … we will get through this together. People are not on their own.”
He also burnished his One Nation credentials by briefing both businesses and trade union leaders beforehand.
And although he aimed his soothing first sentences to the angry northern region, Sunak’s newest bailout will get a huge welcome in London.
The bottom line is that all three of its headline measures are massively important to the capital and, in particular, the battered and beleaguered hospitality sector.
Crucially, for the first time there is special help for Tier 2 areas (like London), where pubs, restaurants and other firms have seen their trade devastated yet were not eligible for the grants going to Tier 3 areas, where many hospitality businesses have actually been ordered to close. ADD Moreover, firms in areas like Manchester will be able to claim this money retrospectively, meaning an extra billion going to areas that have had restrictions since summer.
Tier 3 areas like Manchester will of course benefit from the biggest element of the package – the enormously increased wage subsidy for those forced to go part-time – as will London and Tier 1 areas like Dorset. ADD And this element, which goes to the whole country, is by far the biggest and most important: It addresses the fear of a “cliff edge” of redundancies in November, now just 10 days away.
The political balance might yet wobble. Because as shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds alleged, cities like Manchester were under Tier 2-style restrictions for months without this particular help. She told MPs that it appeared that the north was ignored at first, and the rules only made more generous when the capital city was suffering. The Chancellor, she asserted, had rushed out a “patchwork of poor ideas” that needed constant modifications.
This acidic allegation of regional bias is designed to unsettle the former Red Wall voters who turned Tory in 2019. Sir Keir Starmer is hoping to win back by persuading them that the Conservatives do not really care about them.
Mr Sunak responded that the shadow chancellor was guilty of “tribal political point scoring”. It remains to be seen whether Starmer’s campaign has the same cut-through that Burnham achieved on Tuesday (a new poll suggests Labour has fallen backwards), but Tory backbenchers in northern seats have been seething with anger at the way Downing Street tumbled into the political traps laid by Greater Manchester’s shin-kicking mayor.
Speaking in private to the Standard, these Tory MPs ask despairingly why No 10 did not spend the measly £5 million that would have bought off Mr Burnham in the poker game of negotiations before Manchester’s 2.8 million citizens were forced into severe Tier 3 restrictions.
“Burnham will win with 80 per cent of the vote in the mayoral elections,” predict ted an MP. “What will that mean for Tory MPs in marginals like Bury and Bolton?”
Once again, the Treasury’s supersub has had to come out in the final minutes of a difficult week to open his cheque book and show the Government is listening.
It certainly won’t have harmed Sunak’s hopes of wearing the captain’s armband one day.