The Tories Gave The North More Power. Coronavirus Means It Has Come Back To Bite Them
When the metro mayors sat down with Boris Johnson in September 2019 for their first ever joint meeting, he is reported to have said: “I get what you do, I’ve been a mayor, I want to work with you.”
His stint as Mayor of London between 2008 and 2016 – if not as successful as he would later claim – at least gave him the opportunity to argue for his achievements around crime, affordable homes and the 2012 Olympics. It was felt he was trying to show he had a natural affinity with the regional leaders and their importance.
His comments were made long before the coronavirus pandemic hit, but after a week in which regional mayors and northern leaders have been publicly apoplectic about central government coming up with restrictive rules without consultation, the sentiment from Johnson has felt hollow. Relations will need to be reset.
“We have had one meeting since then, and that’s because we screamed to get it,” said one of the metro mayors, reflecting on the encounter with Johnson last September.
With sky-rocketing rates of coronavirus across the north, greater restrictions have already been placed on millions of people, including curbs on household mixing. In the North East for example, you can’t meet anyone from another household inside, or in a garden.
And on Thursday tempers exploded when northern mayors and council leaders learnt of potential further restrictions such as the shutting of pubs and restaurants from The Sun newspaper.
They felt blind-sided: the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said on the BBC’s Question Time that night that it felt as though they were being treated with contempt by the government. Visibly angry, he said he’d had “no idea” about the new rules, which were due to come in as early as Monday.
“We cannot face a national crisis with the government just imposing decisions from the centre with no agreement from people who have to face the real world today,” he said on the show.
Alex Wickham, who writes the Politico Playbook email, ran a quote from a Whitehall source that perfectly summarised the tension: “Not sure why we are relying on everyone in Liverpool following Sun journalists on Twitter to get the news that they’re being locked down.”
By Friday morning there were reports that the mayors were going to get a call with Downing Street to explain the situation. Meetings were pencilled in, then cancelled, then rescheduled for the afternoon. The thinking was that they needed to hear from Chancellor Rishi Sunak first, who released more details of what financial help would be available for workers who live in regions that are going to be moved into tighter restrictions. The level is being called Tier 3 by newspapers, is expected to involve the closure of leisure venues, and there may be rules on travel in and out of the area.
One-on-one chats with Sir Edward Lister, Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, were arranged for the mayors and northern leaders – and from 3.30pm to 7pm they were given 30 minute slots to ask questions. Some had wanted a minister rather than an adviser, given the gravity of the situation. Oddly, on the Newcastle call, they didn’t even get Sir Edward.
“It’s just not the case that we are properly integrated into the process. (Mayor of London) Sadiq Khan is on Cobra (emergency meetings held for national crisis’), but there’s no representation for the English regions,” one mayor said, explaining why they have felt so cut out of the operational response to Covid.
On Friday morning a Downing Street spokesperson said: “We have been working closely with local leaders and local authorities throughout the pandemic to ensure we can take advice on a local level, and inform the action we take. That work will continue and we will continue to have those meetings.”
One mayor said: “No one can say that with a straight face.”
There is a growing sense local leaders have been neglected by government. Since the pandemic began in March the metro mayors have only had one meeting with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick – the person who is supposed to be their conduit in government. This meeting took place only last Tuesday and was supposed to be about the planning white paper, but Covid was forced onto the agenda by the mayors.
The day before, health secretary Matt Hancock had jumped on a call with them, apparently their first ever discussion with him during the pandemic – and it only happened after Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street apparently “put his foot down”.
They have had one meeting with the Chancellor.
Former communities minister Simon Clarke, who quit his role in September, was reportedly the most affable and helpful of anyone in government, one of the mayors said.
“You could at least have a meaningful conversation with him,” they suggested.
By Friday night, the boiling rage among regional leaders had been reduced to a simmer for some, as Downing Street had at least explained how the next few days would pan out, and when they might expect announcements, and that more meetings between ministers and specific regional leaders would be scheduled for the weekend.
Sir Edward also released a letter on Friday which confirmed more restrictions were likely for those areas with high case numbers.
However those on the call for Merseyside on Friday night described it as “frosty” and, according to the Manchester Evening News, their meeting at 5.30pm had been beset with technical difficulties, though they were personally addressed by Jenrick.
Reports from over the weekend said a round of calls on Saturday had been more constructive, and Johnson will make a speech in the Commons on Monday explaining the detail around upcoming restrictions.
The BBC has reported that Liverpool City Region may go into Tier 3, and other cities are anxiously awaiting Johnson’s statement.
Levels of engagement have clearly improved since Friday, and the government maintains that local leaders will be involved in decision making. However this last week has been a nightmare in terms of engagement with regional government, and especially obtuse considering the metro mayor model was set up by the Conservatives themselves.
The metro-mayor system, which had been devised by former Tory Chancellor George Osborne sprang into life in 2017 with the election of ex-Labour MP Andy Burnham as mayor of Greater Manchester, while former Labour MP Steve Rotherham won the Liverpool City Region mayoralty, while Conservatives won other seats: Ben Houchen won Tees Valley, Andy Street won the West Midlands and Tim Bowles the West of England.
The Current Labour MP Dan Jarvis was elected for the Sheffield City Region in 2018, and Labour candidate Jamie Driscoll won the North of Tyne mayor position in 2019. West Yorkshire is gearing up to get a mayor too, having finally signed off a devolution deal with the government this year.
The leaders of Leeds, Nottingham and Newcastle city councils have also been extremely vocal about what has felt like central decision making, making use of TV, radio and print opportunities to hammer their case home that they need more engagement.
All together this is a powerful group, and being cross-party, the government cannot ignore their requests to be brought into the tent on the Covid response.
If Osborne’s intention with devolution was to empower the English cities and their leaders, this week has been one in which the government has felt their ferocious bite.