No deal: how Greater Manchester’s Covid talks broke down | UK news

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It was 10.12pm when Robert Jenrick’s bombshell landed in the inboxes of exhausted leaders in Greater Manchester. By that time on Monday, it had already featured on the 10 O’Clock News, with a clip filmed in Westminster having been given to broadcasters first.

The final line of Jenrick’s letter contained the crucial ultimatum: after ten days of negotiations, agree to the country’s strictest tier of Covid measures by noon on Tuesday or the prime minister would be told “no deal”. The implication was that tier 3 restrictions would be imposed unilaterally. “I thought: ‘Dearie me, what?!’” said Rochdale’s veteran council leader, Allen Brett. “I read it as: we’ve been naughty boys, ‘I’m going to report you to the headmaster’.”

Cases in Greater Manchester

As the UK slept, Greater Manchester got to work. Senior council officers toiled long into the night and secured an offer of £55m in business support from the government in what they thought to be a strong starting point. It was clear that ministers were not going to cave and improve Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme, which would pay 67% of wages as compared to 80% previously, but it was nonetheless a promising development.

Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester city council, was in a surprisingly chipper mood at 8.30am. “I feel better than I did last night,” he said ahead of his first meeting with the region’s other leaders. “There is at least the basis of coming to an agreement.”

Asked what odds he would put on a deal being struck, he said: “To be honest I thought we were going to do a deal yesterday. On the basis of that, then I would probably put the odds at slightly worse than 50%, but the discussions last night do seem positive. And whilst we’ve got discussions taking place I will remain optimistic.”

The clock was ticking. At 9am, Burnham and the council leaders had their first Microsoft Teams call. They agreed that £55m was not sufficient to support the thousands of low-paid workers, self-employed people and businesses who will suffer the most under tier 3 measures. Greater Manchester had its own price: £90m, though they agreed to go down to £75m if necessary.

Over the previous 24 hours, the nine Labour council leaders and one Conservative had received messages of support from across the political spectrum. But it was Tory MPs, including the influential 1922 Committee chair, Graham Brady, whose backing for the revolt against the government was most striking.

“The Tories have been much more hardline than many of the Labour council leaders. All the MPs but especially Graham Brady were saying: hold out against the government,” said one senior figure.

By noon, Jenrick’s deadline, events were moving fast. Officials from Greater Manchester had put the £75m offer to the government; ministers had nudged up to £60m. It was expected the two sides would meet in the middle. The mood was upbeat. As Boris Johnson spoke to Burnham at midday, preparations were being made in Downing Street and Greater Manchester for the two leaders to hold press conferences within hours.

Local leaders tried to keep spirits high by sharing good news from each of their boroughs. Oldham council had bought a shopping centre as part of regeneration plans; Rochdale won money for a town hall restoration. Sean Fielding, the 30-year-old leader of Oldham council, offered to fill the time by telling jokes. In the end, the outcome was no laughing matter.

At 2pm, Burnham returned stony-faced from a phone call with Jenrick. He had told the communities secretary that £65m was the “absolute minimum” they could accept, perhaps expecting Jenrick to seal the deal. Instead, Burnham returned to his leaders on Teams just after 2pm to tell them that the government had walked away and tier 3 would be imposed, meaning the closure of a swath of hospitality businesses and tightened bans on household mixing.

But he was still in the dark over exactly what ministers were going to impose, when and at what cost, when he turned up shortly after 4pm for an alfresco press conference outside Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, opposite the dormant Nightingale Hospital which has been fashioned out of the conference centre usually used for Tory party conference.

The barnstorming press briefing – in which Burnham accused ministers of playing poker with residents’ livelihoods and won applause from a growing crowd – was almost over when Kevin Lee, Burnham’s usually camera-shy aide, rushed to the front saying: “I think you should read this, Andy.”

As the mayor scanned a message, Leese announced that Greater Manchester’s MP’s had just been told by No 10 “that it was going to be £22m only, and they are going to try and pick off individual councils”.

‘Brutal’: Andy Burnham reacts to news of government’s tier 3 package live on TV – video

The crowd, which had swelled in size as word spread that the mayor – dubbed the “king of the north” – was speaking to the people, booed. Burnham appeared shocked at what he had read, declaring it “brutal – this is no way to run the country in a national crisis”. It is not right to “grind people down and offer the least they can get away with,” he said.

In the end it emerged that the £22m was for test and trace only. And despite Johnson refusing five times to confirm during his own 5pm press conference that the £60m final offer of business support remained on the table, No 10 sources later insisted it did.

Outside the Bridgewater Hall, the Guardian asked Burnham if he’d have got more money if he was a Conservative mayor. “Course he would!” shouted the hecklers. Burnham was more considered: “This was a government elected to level up. Can it say paying two-thirds of people’s wages is in any way an act of levelling up? Of course not. It’s an act of levelling those people down and grinding them into the dirt.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: No deal: how Greater Manchester’s Covid talks broke down | UK news

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