A furious ‘blue on blue’ row has erupted between northern Tory MPs and southern colleagues who have urged Manchester to accept tier three covid restrictions in order to save the nation from another national lockdown.
The Conservative Party last night descended into fierce infighting after backbenchers in a string of ‘redwall’ seats hit out at an “ill-advised” letter sent to Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester.
Tensions between the north and south were laid bare both in public and via an internal party WhatsApp group, in which northern MPs accused the signatories of throwing them “under a bus” in order to curry favour with Number 10.
In a series of testy exchanges, one redwall MP branded their colleagues “absolute pillocks”, adding that the controversy had made Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham during lockdown look like a “storm in a teacup.”
The scale of the backlash has sent shock waves through the party, with one insider telling The Daily Telegraph on Sunday that the situation was now “really dangerous.”
It came after 20 MPs on Saturday wrote to Mr Burnham urging him to drop his opposition to the region being placed under the highest level of restrictions.
Organised by Jerome Mayhew, the MP for Broadland, the letter called on Mr Burnham to “engage” with the Government’s regional approach in order to spare other areas the “pain” of tougher blanket restrictions.
It was also addressed to Sir Keir Starmer, in what critics have interpreted as a deliberate attempt to cast the controversy as a party political dispute with Labour.
20 MPs have today written to Keir Starmer and Andy Burnham. Let's work together to avoid another damaging lockdown, tackling the virus on a regional basis, responding to the infection rates if we are save lives, look after the NHS, keep children in school, & shelter the economy. pic.twitter.com/VEFbuBHMcJ
— Jerome Mayhew (@JeromeMayhew) October 17, 2020
However, it quickly backfired as local Tory MPs who have rallied behind Mr Burnham and local council leaders lined up to condemn the letter.
They were joined by colleagues in Yorkshire, Lancashire and parts of the Midlands, whose seats are also at risk of having to close pubs and leisure businesses.
Speaking to The Telegraph yesterday, several northern MPs accused Downing Street of orchestrating the letter in a bid to isolate Mr Burnham.
They pointed out that Danny Kruger, a close ally of Dominic Cummings, was among the signatories and that Mark Spencer, the Government Chief Whip, had also “liked” a picture of the letter uploaded by Mr Mayhew on Twitter.
Approached for comment, a Downing Street source did not deny the claim, stating only that “we work with MPs and we saw the letter.”
The MPs also argue that it has only served to fuel allegations of a “north versus south” divide, with Mr Burnham yesterday telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that the missive from “southern Conservative MPs isn’t going to cut much ice here.”
Among those voicing their frustrations publicly was Chris Green, the MP for Bolton West, who said: “I have never thought that the affairs of Norfolk should be determined by what may be of benefit to parts of Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire.
“Science matters but this Number 10 approved communication does not.”
James Daly, the Tory MP for Bury North dismissed the letter as “deeply disappointing,” “unnecessary and ill-advised”, while Christian Wakeford, MP for Buy South, added: “Interventions from fellow members who don’t understand the situation are neither wanted nor helpful.”
However, it was only in private that the true scale of anger towards southern MPs was made plain.
In a series of messages sent via Whatsapp, relayed to The Telegraph, one MP accused their colleagues of an “all-round shafting,” adding: “Andy Burnham is dancing with joy over this. You just want a promotion and you're happy to throw colleagues under a bus to achieve it.”
Another said: "For f---- sake. Not content with ----ing things up you now post things on social media. I cannot describe how angry this is making me."
A third described colleagues as "absolute pillocks" adding: "This is going to make the Cummings saga seem like a storm in a teacup.”
Speaking afterwards, one observer said the backlash had been on “another level,” adding: “it is the most anger I have ever seen directed by one set of Tory MPs to another”,
"The North West MPs are absolutely seething,” they continued. “The whole thing has been set up by Number 10 which shows their total lack of understanding.
"Greater Manchester MPs seem to have lost all confidence in the Government. They are now looking to Burnham for leadership rather than Number 10, which is really dangerous.
"It's quite clear that their voices are not being heard and the situation in terms of party management is breaking down. It's extraordinary that with a majority of 80 the PM's main threat is now from his own backbenchers.
"To win the next election all they have to do is manage a small group of people and they can't even do that."