Celebrating his election victory at a hotel bar in Barrow-in-Furness, Simon Fell made a promise to supporters: as the northern English town’s new Conservative member of Parliament he’d make sure the leadership in London “listens to us.”
Less than a year after ousting the Labour Party in one of its heartlands in December, Fell is concerned those voters aren’t being heard as the coronavirus rips through the country. “A lot of people explicitly said to me that they lent me their vote at the last election,” he said this week. “People quite rightly look around their town and think we’ve been left behind.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy for dealing with surging infections with localized restrictions has sparked an insurrection in some northern regions and further divided the country. But crucially, it’s also complicated his relationship with the places that propelled him to power on the back of his promises to deliver Brexit and tackle economic inequality.
Swathes of the north and Midlands, parts of the “red wall” of Labour strongholds than turned Tory blue in the election, are in lockdown. Many pubs and restaurants are shuttered and people are banned from visiting their relatives. Some areas have suffered tough restrictions for over two months, while London and the more affluent southeast of England have—until this week—escaped the sharp end of the pandemic.
Many Tory MPs who were vital to Johnson’s electoral success complained on Twitter that they aren’t being kept in the loop on the latest measures.
A group of Conservatives representing districts in and around the northern city of Manchester turned on health minister Helen Whately in a Zoom call on Thursday as she made the case for the area to be put in the highest of the UK’s three levels of restrictions. Two days earlier, Chris Green, the Conservative MP for neighboring Bolton, resigned as a ministerial aide and warned Johnson that “the cure is worse than the disease.”
The backlash is a concern for Johnson. He scored the biggest Conservative win since the 1980s on a campaign to “level up” the country with investment in the poorer northern regions after taking the UK out of the European Union.
Those places are now recording the biggest spikes in virus cases in a country that already has Europe’s highest death toll from Covid-19. Infection rates in the north are more than double the average for the rest of England. Unemployment is surging, while talks on a post-Brexit trade deal could go either way. Negotiations resume next week after Johnson said on Friday an agreement looks unlikely.
One minister said it was a “nightmare” that the regions suffering the most—and requiring the tightest restrictions on business—were the same ones that gave the Tories a big majority. The key is to win back trust by delivering on investment, the minister said. “If we do that, we can recover. If we fail to do that, we’re toast.”
Fell joined a group of Conservative MPs pushing to ensure Johnson sticks to his promises. Of the 5.5 million people who live in the most deprived areas of England, almost 60 percent of them live in the three northern regions.
The government made a down payment on investment promises in the March budget, with extra billions for infrastructure projects. But the plans have been thrown into doubt by the vast cost of protecting an economy facing its worst year for three centuries.
Debt is already above 100% of economic output, and is expected to keep rising rapidly unless the government raises taxes or cuts spending. Unemployment, meanwhile, could surpass 3 million people, levels not seen since the 1980s, with northern regions among the hardest hit.
The growing anger is reflected in Conservatives who now seem more politically aligned with local Labour Party mayors when it comes to new measures to curb the virus, such as shutting the hospitality industry.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, vowed to fight plans for tighter controls, saying on Thursday the north wouldn’t be “forgotten and pushed aside.” He refused Johnson’s request to move to the highest level of pandemic curbs unless there’s more financial support. On Friday, Johnson warned he will have no choice but to impose the toughest available measures on Manchester unless Burnham backed down.
One Tory MP representing a more affluent southern English district said his northern party colleagues already know they won’t last, and that makes them more rebellious. But they are also critical. As Jake Berry, who represents a district in Lancashire, put it: “We are literally the prime minister’s majority, so he needs to look after us.”
Britain’s next general election isn’t due until May 2024, but the government faces an effective referendum on its coronavirus strategy in a series of local and mayoral votes next May.
Polls show the Conservatives are now neck and neck with Labour, the worst showing since before Johnson became leader in July 2019. Scotland, whose leadership has also been critical of Johnson, also holds elections with the pro-independence nationalists on course to win big again.
A scientist who sits on the government’s pandemic advisory committee said on Friday that the fragmentation of the country risks damaging public health. “Frankly, making this either a north-south or a party political issue, that’s a very dangerous route to go on,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust research charity, told the BBC.
Johnson has time to turn it around because many voters who defected to his party want to have their decision vindicated, according to Deborah Mattinson, co-founder of consultancy Britain Thinks and author of “Beyond the Red Wall.” But her research showed people who voted Tory for the first time feel “they have been ignored and hard done by compared with other places,” she said. “There’s a sense of being picked on.”
The task in heading up a coherent and effective response to Covid-19 is complex because of the sheer level of political devolution in the UK Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have long had their own parliament. But now the premier is also negotiating with a raft of metropolitan mayors across England, many of whom are Labour.
Burnham in Manchester stood in a navy anorak on the steps of the city’s Central Library as he told the government he would not accept the region being forced into the toughest coronavirus restrictions. People clapped behind the TV cameras as he said Manchester and other northern cities were “being set up as the canaries in the coal mine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy.”
“The north is fed up of being pushed around,” Burnham said. “This is real—the north stands on the brink of being back where we were in the 1980s. But we won’t let that happen.”