I’ve grown used to the arrogance of this government – but the way it’s treating the regions is just insulting

Jess Phillips
·5-min read
Boris Johnson at a recent press conference (Leon Neal/Pool Photo vía AP)
Boris Johnson at a recent press conference (Leon Neal/Pool Photo vía AP)

Andy Burnham was right to fight for the livelihoods of his people over tougher coronavirus restrictions. What’s more, he was right to do it with cross-party support from Greater Manchester MPs and all the council leaders.

The fact that he was made out to be difficult and accused by Michael Gove of lacking in leadership is the kind of all-mouth, no-trousers big talk I have come to expect from a government who are more interested in having a fight than they are in actually doing the hard, detailed work of governing the country.

Why on earth can the government not just publish clear and fair national criteria for financial support for jobs and businesses in areas facing additional restrictions?

I bet the government thinks it has landed a victorious blow by snubbing the requests of the representatives of Greater Manchester, and not agreeing to the amount they urged was needed to support their people and businesses through the highest tier of lockdown. I bet the government thinks this makes them look like tough negotiators, who won’t be pushed around. It doesn’t.

This is because it is not Andy Burnham they have squared up to; it is the people of Manchester, Wigan, Stockport, Oldham, Bolton and all the areas of Greater Manchester. It is the people who will be pushed into poverty, whose businesses will shut on Friday night at one minute past midnight, and may never open again.

Don’t worry – Boris Johnson, stood at his podium and said he was sorry for what these people will have to bear. He said sorry that they couldn’t go out or see their families. But the thing is, in reality, what he announced could mean them not being able to feed their families. People don’t want the prime minister's sorrow; they want a government who acted in time to prevent this.

I, for one, wish I could join them in this comforting but imaginary Great Britain, where high-level decisions are not left to Johnson. Who could blame them for imagining a world where a reasonable leader, who used evidence and the recommendations of experts, was in charge. Hope springs eternal.

The ultimate insult, however, was to include Burnham in their “I’m alright Jack” message. To tell the leader of Manchester that he should, without a fight for the financial welfare of his constituents, suck up what the government was saying for the sake of other parts of the country. The region has been locked down in one way or another for months. How the tiered approach has been communicated and foisted on to the public has been so incredibly tone deaf to people's real lives.

Robert Jenrick, a man who hits only one note, took a swipe at the Greater Manchester mayor by accusing him of not being willing to take the action needed to prevent the virus. Which is a bit rich, given the government are currently refusing to take the expert advice of Sage to undertake a national short-term circuit break lockdown.

The arrogance that Burnham has faced simply for trying to get a financial settlement of more than £8 per constituent, is an arrogance I am growing familiar with. The government, when challenged about anything that is going wrong, will point to some fund or another and expect you to show the required amount of reverence and gratitude for all that they have done. It happens all the time.

The prime minister, in his rebuttal to the northwest cited a fund allocated to the region for shovel-ready building projects, as if this will help with the immediate hardship. Labour and Marcus Rashford are currently battling the government to ensure whose families are struggling can have free school meals. The government keep reminding us of all what they did in March to feed people, which is lovely and all, but the reminder won't feed children in Stalybridge over Christmas.

It's not even the words of these rebuttals that get under the skin, it’s the tone.

The tone that this government takes, and which the prime minister has taken with the people of Greater Manchester, is one which suggests you were wrong for asking for change. That you should be bloody well grateful that the government are doing anything at all. The people of Greater Manchester are doing their bit for the rest of us, only to be told by the government that they are asking too much. The government saying the settlement is enough isn't the same as it actually being enough. People are allowed to be annoyed and to try and change it, without being treated like children who just want extra pudding.

I would like to thank the people of Greater Manchester for their service to our country. I am only sorry that our government did not take the advice of the Sage committee and instigate a short-term circuit break lockdown that could have saved both their lives and their livelihoods.

This is the apology Boris Johnson should have made. Instead he wanted to act the big man. Once again, if only the small businesses of Moss Side could afford to buy a table at a Conservative Party dinner, things might have been so different.

Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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