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When Matt Hancock used an interview with Radio 4’s Today programme to heap praise on the Labour leaders of Liverpool on Monday, it could be viewed in one of two ways.
Either it was an all too rare example of non-partisan politics, a health minister mature enough to recognise good governance in what is arguably the least Tory-friendly region in the UK. Or it was just the latest example of top-level trolling from Boris Johnson’s administration, some of whom seem to go so far out of their way to laud the Scousers that some observers have questioned if there’s a bet running.
For Joe Anderson, Liverpool’s rumbustious city mayor, it was like “a viper showing its teeth to you – its intention is to poison you”.
Anderson was happy for his residents to become guinea pigs for the government’s first mass testing project, with 178,000 people taking tests in Liverpool since 6 November. Liverpudlians will also be the first to trial a scheme to stop people who have come into close contact with someone who has coronavirus from having to isolate for 14 days by testing them every day for a week. Both projects look set to roll out nationally when England’s national lockdown ends on 3 December.
But the government should not mistake Anderson’s temporary collegiality for any sort of long-term loyalty: he vowed to show his own teeth to Johnson if he tries to put his city back in the tightest restrictions and is agitating for the reopening of pubs and restaurants.
If there really is a bet on, the prime minister himself seemed to start the competition. Announcing England’s short-lived three-tier system in a press conference on 12 October, Johnson gave four name-checks to Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool city region, for “stepping up with strong local leadership”.
Johnson will have known exactly how unwelcome those compliments will have been for Rotheram, whose red realm of 1.5m people includes a solitary Conservative constituency (Southport) and the five least marginal seats in the country, with Labour majorities of almost 40,000.
The prime minister knows he is not yet forgiven for an editorial he published while editing the Spectator back in 2004, which accused Liverpudlians of wallowing in their “victim status” and blamed the Hillsborough tragedy on “drunken fans”.
Johnson and Hancock particularly enjoy exalting Liverpool’s leaders while lambasting their Mancunian equivalents – particularly Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, whose anti-government antics have made him so popular on home turf that a Salford brewery has just launched a beer in his honour, an IPA called King of the North.
That’s what Hancock was up to on Today on Monday, when confronted with Burnham’s complaints about the future tiering system.
He immediately seized his chance. “The really good case study here is what’s happened in Liverpool,” he said. “In Manchester, there was a disagreement, there was some unfortunate messaging locally. In Liverpool, the mayor Joe Anderson and Steve Rotheram both did a great job … and cases are now down by two-thirds.”
Burnham and Rotheram are good friends. In an interview with the Guardian last month, Burnham accused the government of “sacrificing Steve to get at me” by presenting Liverpool’s leaders as compliant colleagues who accepted going into the tightest restrictions while Burnham fought hard against his region meeting the same fate.
Both Rotheram and Anderson have been dismissed as “red Tories” for working with the government. Anderson isn’t fussed, insisting that he led his city’s move into the tightest restrictions after infection rates soared to 700 per 100,000 people. He knew from personal experience just how serious the situation was: his older brother was seriously ill with Covid during his negotiations with the government and died the day after Liverpool entered tier 3.
Covid has continued to ravage the Anderson family. One of his cousins, Tommy Morris, was buried on Friday. Another cousin is currently in intensive care (ICU) and yet another cousin has just been discharged from hospital.
An even earlier lockdown could have saved them all, believes Anderson. But he is now agitating for pubs and restaurants to reopen in Liverpool on 3 December, with the infection level down to 200 per 100,000 people.
“The pressure is off hospitals; they’re down to around 80% occupancy in the Covid wards and round about 80% in the ICUs. So we see real promising signs. So looking at the figures as they are today, I’d be arguing that we are in tier 2 territory,” he said.
In tier 2, as was, hospitality businesses were allowed to open but people could not socialise with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting.
But Anderson thinks Liverpudlians should be able to meet friends and family for a drink or a meal without shivering in the beer garden. “Most of our pubs and certainly restaurants made themselves Covid-safe,” he said. “If you go into a pub and four strangers can sit spaced out, then what’s the difference [if they’re your friends]?”
He will have to wait until Thursday to see if he gets his way – or whether he will turn from government pet into predator.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Liverpool mayor: Tory praise is like viper showing its teeth | UK news