Strayside Sunday is our weekly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.
Try as I might, my rudimentary internet research skills have not yet uncovered the criteria for Harrogate currently residing in Covid-19 Medium Tier Alert. With some application I can discern the do’s and don’ts of the category: 10pm curfew, the Rule of 6, non-attendance at the monthly swingers club, that sort of thing. It’s just that, for the life of me, I can’t uncover the triggers that would mean Harrogate might be promoted to High Alert, alongside near neighbours Leeds, or even catapulted into Very High Alert, there to rub shoulders with Liverpool.
I think the alert level might be something to do with the R-rate, the number of positive Covid-19 tests, the size of the city or town’s student population, relative levels of social deprivation, areas of health inequality, the proportion of people over the age of 60, ethnicity and pre-existing and underlying health conditions. No one is able to say for sure. In fact the alert level decision is of course about all of these things and more. Myriad factors discussed and negotiated between a national government (the authority of which has lost its wax and found its wane) and local government leaders, in full voice, newly ‘bold as Beauchamp.’ Or, should I say, given I write this in Yorkshire about the North’s crop of elected Mayors, ‘bold as brass.’
What’s going on? The Conservative government is, of course, in a terrible stew. The decisions it faces hour-by-hour must balance the ongoing threat to our health with further damage to our already grievously wounded economy. It is making life or death decisions, affecting health or wealth, in real-time, with only instinct and imperfect information as a guide. But, as the number of clangers, screeching hand-break turns and misfires mounts up, even those, like me, sympathetically minded toward the government, are beginning to lose patience. It’s not only about poor decision making and obvious political incompetence, it’s about the glaring lack of a guiding principle, a north star, so to speak.
By backing Brexit (opportunistically and at the last moment) and, through the good offices of Dominic “The Brainiac” Cummins, by turning it into a conversation about immigration, Boris earned a hearing from the white working-class north of Watford Gap. So, when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson won his stonking parliamentary majority in December 2019, he did so with what seemed a strong, if, from Boris, counterintuitive promise to “level up” the North. No longer the posh London metropolitan ‘hug-a-hoodie’ Tory party of Dave and Sam Cam, the Conservatives were striking out beyond the M25, prioritising the forgotten industrial waste lands of post-post-Thatcherite Britain and, BBC-like, placing new emphasis on regional accents. Man of the people BoJo promised us investment in jobs, skills, infrastructure, a brave and bold future grown rich on newly minted international trade deals. But, then, Covid, only Covid.
We know that people in the North of England went into this crisis earning, owning and saving less than those in the South. Nothing new to see here. We also know now that Covid hits hardest in densely populated urban areas with high levels of social deprivation. And we know that Covid seeks out and punishes those in ill health. We know too that Covid disproportionately impacts BAME nationals. All these matter more in the urban multi-cultural north.
The northern mayors have a point; Covid, and the government’s developing economic response to it, are widening the gap between north and south. Its hitting hardest those who can least afford it, whether they are working in low paid jobs, or not working at all. Yes, the mayors are being politically partisan, they scent a real opportunity to regain lost ground and build again in red brick. But they are most certainly representing the feelings of their constituents, secondary modern kids snubbed once more by their betters in gowns and mortarboards.
It was announced during the Conservatives’ virtual conference last week that it was going to open a northern party headquarters in Leeds. This the better to emphasise its un-swingeing commitment to the region. But unless the Conservative Party genuinely hears and urgently acts upon the grievances being aired now by mayors like Andy Burnham from Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram from the Liverpool City Region and Jamie Driscoll from North Tyne, it won’t just receive a cool welcome when it opens for business in Leeds (Labour Leader Judith Blake is said to be spitting at the prospect), it will surely lose the north at the next election.
So I propose that Boris doubles down on levelling up, to counterpoint my metaphors. If he doesn’t, he leaves the Conservatives open to the easy charge that they don’t care about the north after all. It’s not too late for him to tack and change course. As St. Augustine said, “repentant tears wash out the stain of guilt.”
That’s my Strayside Sunday.