Boris Johnson was facing a growing north and south revolt over lockdown today as some of his newest MPs demanded he produce an exit strategy for some of the areas worst hit by the second wave of the pandemic.
In the biggest Tory challenge to his leadership since the general election a group of 54 of his newest MPs from former Red Wall seats warned they were up for ‘a bit of tussle’ with Downing Street, and suggesting they could vote as a block against legislation.
The newly-formed Northern Research Group (NRG) of Conservative backbenchers wrote to Mr Johnson to warn the coronavirus crisis is threatening his pledge to ‘level-up’ the country and could ‘send the North into reverse’.
The group, led by former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, wants the Prime Minister to publish a ‘clear road map’ for Tier Three areas to leave lockdown as well as an economic recovery plan for the North of England.
At the same time Mr Johnson is also facing discontent from MPs in other parts of the country, as more and more areas are put into the toughest Tier 3 lockdown.
Dan Poulter, the MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, who is an NHS doctor and former health minister, backed a report calling for the UK to copy New Zealand by suppressing and eliminating the virus rather than trying to ‘live with it’, according to the Standard.
NRG member Simon Fell, who has only been Conservative MP for Barrow and Furness in Cumbria since December’s election, told Times Radio the group is ‘trying to essentially keep the government honest on its promises to the north’.
He insisted they ‘want to be a friendly and helpful voice’, but added: ‘It’s going to be a bit of tussle for a while getting Number 10 into the position where they understand what our voters are hoping for and what they expect to get out of us, but that’s a good conversation to be having I think.’
He added: ‘When we start to look at issues like Covid and the restrictions that have been brought in. You know, we need to understand that some of these things hit the north disproportionately badly.’
NRG member Simon Fell (right) , who has only been Conservative MP for Barrow and Furness in Cumbria since December’s election, told Times Radio the group is ‘trying to essentially keep the government honest on its promises to the north’. Dan Poulter (left) , the MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, who is an NHS doctor and former health minister, backed a report calling for the UK to copy New Zealand by suppressing and eliminating the virus rather than trying to ‘live with it’.
The newly-formed Northern Research Group (NRG) of Conservative backbenchers wrote to Mr Johnson to warn the coronavirus crisis is threatening his pledge to ‘level-up’ the country and could ‘send the North into reverse’
Tory backbench leader Sir Graham Brady demands ministers start accounting for the wider impact of lockdowns
Sir Graham Brady said the Government had ‘a duty to take into account the best interests of the nation as a whole’ but could not do that without vast improvements in the data available to it.
Sir Graham, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives, is the MP for Altringham and Sale West in Greater Manchester, which was last week placed in the highest Tier 3 lockdown.
He said that the Department of Health and Social Care should compile and publish data on deaths caused by reduced access to care, and for the Treasury to do the same about ‘shuttered businesses and lost jobs’.
He warned that amid Labour demands for a ‘circuit break’ lockdown and increasing numbers of cities being placed into the Very High lockdown, there needed to be recognition of ‘the extraordinary toll that these measures are taking on the country’.
‘The cost of lockdown extends far beyond the public accounts. Suicide rates are up. People are missing out on life-saving operations and essential care,’ he wrote in an op-ed for the Conservative Home website.
‘Millions are struggling with their mental health as restrictions cut them off from friends, family, and other support networks.
‘Domestic violence is on the rise as women are trapped at home with violent partners.
‘All the while young people, who are amongst those least at risk from Covid-19, are paying a huge price.
‘School has been disrupted, formative moments and milestones missed, and now many are confined to their dormitories at university.
‘Does anyone honestly think that this is sustainable for a year, or more? The ”lockdown raves” we saw this summer will be just the start.’
Mr Berry insisted this morning the letter does not represent a ‘revolt’ against the PM but it will have spooked Number 10 because many of the disillusioned MPs are from Red Wall seats which propelled Mr Johnson to victory last December.
Mr Berry said the Government needed to do a better job of providing the public with ‘easily digestible’ data to show how the fight against Covid-19 is progressing in order to better incentivise people to stick to the rules.
The letter prompted an immediate charm offensive from Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi as he praised the group’s MPs for acting as ‘champions for their area’.
It came as approximately eight million people in England face living under the toughest Covid-19 restrictions by the end of the week after officials confirmed four separate parts of Nottinghamshire will be thrust into a Tier Three lockdown from midnight on Wednesday, following three days of crunch talks with the Government.
Officials have agreed to adopt the draconian measures in Nottingham City, Gedling, Broxtowe and Rushcliffe in an attempt to drive down transmission.
It will mean all pubs and bars have to close unless they serve meals, while people are banned from mixing with anyone they don’t live with indoors or in private gardens and beer gardens.
Ministers finally confirmed yesterday that Warrington will also be subject to the strictest measures as of today.
A North-South divide has emerged as a result of the Government’s coronavirus tier system, as all areas under the strictest restrictions are in the North and Midlands.
As well as demanding a ‘road map’ out of lockdown, the Northern Research Group has also urged the Government to prioritise key infrastructure projects and to accelerate job creation in the region.
Mr Berry this morning dismissed claims of a Tory rebellion, telling the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: ‘It’s not a revolt, I don’t know how it can be a revolt for northern MPs to write to the Prime Minister to ask to work with him on delivering him on his exciting manifesto that he has a mandate for from December 2019.
‘We are asking for the Government to reaffirm its commitment to stimulate the north by bringing forward a northern growth strategy.
‘The reason we really want to focus on that is, like at my own constituency in East Lancashire, we’re a manufacturing powerhouse in Rossendale and Darwen and probably against all expectations if you look at the purchase managers index PMI for last month the barometer of strength in manufacturing, all parts of the north, including East Lancashire, we’re growing faster than London, I think that really demonstrates to Government that by building this bespoke northern growth plan, the north can be the leaders in building back better and that’s what we’re seeking.’
Mr Berry said the Government needed to do a better job of spelling out to members of the public the data underpinning its coronavirus response.
‘First of all it’s good that the Government has identified the metrics that are going to enable areas to leave Tier Three or Tier Two respectively,’ he said.
‘What I would like to see on a personal basis is that information provided in an easily digestible, consumer facing public friendly way that can show people a route out of these restrictions.
Former minister Jake Berry is leading a Northern Research Group of Tory MPs in demanding the Government set out a road map for exiting local lockdowns
A letter sent by the group to Number 10 has prompted an immediate charm offensive from ministers as Nadhim Zahawi said the MPs were ‘champions for their area’
WHAT ARE THE TIER THREE RULES? AND WHEN DO THEY COME INTO FORCE?
Warrington was made subject to Tier Three lockdown rules as of midnight last night.
Nottingham City, Gedling, Broxtowe and Rushcliffe will be part of Tier Three from 00.01am Thursday.
- People must not socialise with anybody they do not live with, or have not formed a support bubble with, in any indoor setting, in any private garden, or at most outdoor hospitality venues and ticketed events;
- People must not socialise in a group of more than six in an outdoor public space such as a park or beach, the countryside, a public garden or a sports venue;
- All pubs and bars must close, unless they are serving substantial meals, any alcohol must only be served alongside such a meal.
- People should try to avoid travelling outside the very high alert level or entering a very high alert level area, other than for work, education or for caring responsibilities or to travel through as part of a longer journey;
- Residents should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK, and others should avoid staying overnight in the very high alert area.
‘The reason we’ve written to the PM asking to work with him on his levelling up agenda as northern MPs is for many areas of the north we have been in restrictions similar to Tier Three, almost identical to Tier Two, since August and that’s why we want to revitalise the PM’s levelling up agenda by working with the Government to deliver for the community we as Northern MPs represent.’
Mr Berry, who represents the constituency of Rossendale and Darwen, said better public awareness could lead to higher levels of adherence to Covid-19 rules.
‘Well I think we need consistent and clear data to be published that not just shows council leaders but the public and businesses how they are doing in tackling this pandemic,’ he said.
‘If you visit any church hall or scout hut around the country you’ll see the thermometer on the wall telling them how they’re getting toward they’re new roof fund.
‘Incentivising people, providing them data, bringing them with you, letting them understand that they’re part of this great battle we’re fighting against Covid will, I think, increase compliance and also a route out of these restrictions is obviously part of a route to recovery which is what we have written to the Prime Minister seeking as a group of northern MPs.’
The letter from the Northern Research Group prompted an immediate charm offensive from ministers as Mr Zahawi told Sky News this morning: ‘I think they are rightly champions for their area.
‘They want to make sure that their northern powerhouse strategy that Jake Berry and others have worked so hard on, with myself, I am the local growth minister as well as being the business and industry minister, is delivered and that is absolutely our focus.
‘You will see that coming through as I said in our refresh of the industrial strategy.
‘The industrial strategy was a great piece of work, delivered in 2017, in a world of near full employment.
‘We are entering a very different world today post-pandemic and that is the point they are trying to make I think. As I said to you, judge us by what we do.’
Mr Zahawi told LBC Radio that the Tier Three rules are subject to review every 28 days and that the way out of the top tier was to bring the spread of the virus under control.
The full letter from the Northern Research Group, which was orchestrated by MP for Rossendale and Darwen Jake Berry
The letter from the Northern Research Group represents a major headache for Boris Johnson, pictured on a visit to a hospital in Reading yesterday
He said: ‘There is some good news. I have to be very cautious about this… but what I would say if you look at the the data, where we are working really well together, the rate of increase has slowed down.
‘It’s still too high, and we’ve got to continue to protect our hospitals, make sure that we save lives, protect the NHS and of course protect livelihoods and businesses, which is why this is a balancing act.’
He added: ‘It’s a choice between two harms – the harm of the virus and the harm to the economy and to livelihoods, which ultimately also leads to health harms as well.’
Mr Berry told Number 10 overnight that ‘our party’s return to Government in December was won on the back of hard-working people in constituencies like ours who backed the Conservatives for the first time in a generation, and who did so on the promise that they would not be forgotten’.
‘We cannot forget that we must deliver on our commitments made during that election, to level-up northern communities and create opportunity across our region,’ he added.
Some 40 Conservative MPs have publicly signed Mr Berry’s letter, while a further 14 have had their names redacted.
Mr Johnson won a majority of 80 seats at last year’s general election, turning many traditional Labour constituencies – which formed the so-called Red Wall – blue.
Some MPs have expressed concern that these newly won seats could be returned to Labour at the next election if the Government fails to deliver on its promise to ‘level up’ the country.
A Number 10 spokesman said: ‘We are absolutely committed to levelling up across the country and building back better after coronavirus.
‘We stood at the last election on a solemn promise that we would improve people’s lives, and although the pandemic has meant 2020 is not the year we all hoped it would be, our ambitions for the country are unchanged.’
Labour’s shadow Treasury minister Bridget Phillipson said: ‘Even Boris Johnson’s own MPs know that he cannot be trusted to deliver on his promises.
‘The Government has been treating local communities with contempt.
‘The decision not to extend free school meals is the clearest sign yet that the Conservatives have the wrong priorities and are not on the side of British families.’
The pressure on the PM from northern Tory MPs came as northern council leaders in areas moving into Tier Three expressed concerns about the amount of Government funding they have been given to keep local businesses afloat.
Warrington’s Labour council leader Russ Bowden defended the deal done with the Government but suggested he would have liked more money as the authority entered the top tier.
He admitted that ‘we went in with a larger ask than what we got from Government’ but denied it had been a ‘case of rolling over’.
Warrington council will receive a financial support package of £1.68 million to help contact-tracing and enforcement, as well as £4.2 million in business support from the Government.
Mr Bowden told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘Ultimately we had to make a call whether or not to accept that, that’s what a negotiation is about.’
Meanwhile, councillor David Mellen, leader of Nottingham City Council, said it is ‘difficult to tell’ whether the city has secured enough support because all areas have been given a ‘flat rate’.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think we have additional responsibilities of running a big city, and the city centre in particular has additional needs.
‘I’m not sure that all of that will be covered in what we’ve been promised from the Government.’
He said costs and lost income from the first wave of Covid-19 ‘were not fully met as was promised’, meaning that budgets are ‘strained and stretched’.