PMQs: “Stop dividing communities,” Starmer tells Johnson

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The Prime Minister confirmed today that Greater Manchester would receive £60m in Covid support, after ministers walked out of negotiations on Tuesday afternoon because local leaders led by Andy Burnham argued that £5m more was required. Asked repeatedly to confirm during his press conference yesterday evening whether that money was still on the table, after the government broke off talks, Boris Johnson failed to confirm that it would be. But faced with the opposition leader and mutinous northern backbench Tories in parliament, he finally gave the answer that he should have given last night. He had wanted to make an example of the region and play the strongman, but this afternoon saw him back down.

This announcement during Prime Minister’s Questions today is no huge surprise. Going toe-to-toe with Burnham over Tier 3 proved to be a big mistake. The ‘King in the North’ emerged from the dispute a hero, while the public watched on with disbelief at the pettiness of Johnson’s government. But the U-turn is telling. The rallying of northern leaders against Westminster is a crystallising moment for a government that won an election just last year on a ‘levelling up’ platform. Since then, the Prime Minister has done his level-best to break those promises and shed the unlikely ‘Red Wall’ seats he picked up in the general election. Today shows how far we have come.

The Manchester debacle handed Keir Starmer another stick with which to beat the PM. This is the man, the Labour leader reminded MPs, who can find £7,000 per day for consultants on the track and trace system and £43m on a non-existent garden bridge, but could not find £5m for the people of Manchester. And it’s not just a problem for the northern city but everywhere, Starmer stressed. Challenging the “take-it-or-leave-it” approach, he told the PM: “It is corrosive to public trust to pit region against region, mayor against mayor, council against council, asking them to trade away their businesses and jobs.”

The tier-based, local plan is not working, Starmer explained, and this could be the PM’s last chance to put in place an effective circuit break. Echoing Burnham and holding up the shambolic handling of Covid restrictions over past weeks, Starmer was able to set out a stark choice: carry on as we are, or adopt the national measure. “Stop dividing communities,” the Labour leader told Johnson. “Stop bargaining with people’s lives.”

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