Boris Johnson has been accused of “playing poker” with people’s lives after a gruelling clash with northern leaders over coronavirus lockdown funding.
The prime minister yesterday faced a war on three fronts, with business leaders and the European Union also lining up to attack him as a rebellion in northwest England threatened to spiral.
Bosses from leading UK companies and trade bodies accused Johnson of “box-ticking” following a conference call with the PM and Michael Gove that sources told The Telegraph was “shocking, embarrassing and not constructive”.
And the spectre of Brexit loomed large too, with post-Brexit trade talks hitting another deadlock over the UK’s demands for agreeing a future trade deal.
Tussles with Brussels
Following failed talks in Brussels last week, Cabinet Office Minister Gove said on Monday that the door to further EU trade negotiations was “still ajar”. And the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier appeared to push that door open, agreeing to “intensify talks in London on all subjects” in a “significant volte-face”, Euractiv reports.
Barnier said that a deal was “within reach”, stressing the EU27’s willingness to move to “legal texts” to appease one of No. 10’s key demands. But getting back to the negotiating table is just one hurdle in the race to secure an agreement, with European Council President Charles Michel warning that “time is very short” to get a deal over the line.
Talks yesterday between Barnier and UK negotiator David Frost “failed to make a breakthrough”, the BBC reports. Frost said the phone call had been “constructive”, but No. 10 is not backing down from Johnson’s warning last week that a “fundamental change” in the EU’s approach is required to kickstart face-to-face talks.
According to Politico, an EU official “said the two sides would remain in touch but was unable to give details about the next steps”, while British officials “said that without a signal from the EU that it is also ready to make concessions, formal talks can’t resume”.
Both sides are still haggling over fishing rights for EU boats in British waters, with Johnson’s spokesperson saying yesterday that the bloc needed to show that the talks could be a “genuine negotiation rather than one side being expected to make all of the moves”.
Barnier appears willing to be flexible, telling the European Parliament in Brussels that “a deal that will be mutually beneficial to both parties in respect of the autonomy and sovereignty of both sides”.
His speech to MEPs was clearly “intended to satisfy” the UK’s demand that “Brussels makes clear it will compromise, as well as the UK, to get a deal before negotiations resume”, says The Telegraph.
Burnham’s poker face
While Downing Street’s relations with Europe appear to have improved slightly, battles on the home front are intensifying amid a stand-off between No. 10 and northern leaders.
A “furious blame game has erupted” between Johnson and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, with both sides accusing the other of walking away from last-ditch talks about financial support for the region as it heads into Tier 3 lockdown restrictions, the Daily Mail says.
Condemning the government’s “game of poker” approach to the negotiations, Burnham told reporters yesterday that a “winter of hardship” was ahead if ministers do not agree to provide more financial backing.
The Labour mayor said that Greater Manchester’s ten council leaders had asked for £65m “to prevent poverty, to prevent hardship, to prevent homelessness” during the shutdown, but accused Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick of walking away from the talks early and refusing to increase the offer of £60m.
However, Whitehall sources dispute that version of events, telling the Daily Mail that “an agreement of £55m was reached, but during a final telephone to rubber-stamp the arrangement Burnham blindsided the prime minister and upped his demand to £65m”.
An insider told the paper that “Burnham’s pride got in the way of a deal”, while a No. 10 source told The Guardian that the mayor “was the one who walked away” from the talks.
“The government’s preferred narrative is clear: a grandstanding politician puts his own popularity ahead of public health,” writes The Times’ Whitehall editor Chris Smyth.
But while “there will no doubt be takers for this argument”, Burnham’s defiant stance “has gone down well” in Greater Manchester, where “he is largely seen as standing up for the North against a dismissive Westminster elite”, Smyth continues.
“If the government now refuses to hand over the money they were offering, Burnham can accuse them of punishing the region out of spite; if they do, he can claim victory.”
And with Keir Starmer tabling a motion on a “fair one nation deal” for areas put into Tier 3 – a motion that may win the support of ‘red wall’ Tory MPs – Burnham’s possible victory could be the first of two successes for the opposition.
Along with his bruising clashes with Burnham and the EU, Johnson also faced conflict from a traditional ally of the Tory party – big business.
Industry chiefs have blasted the PM after dialling in to discuss Brexit plans with him and Gove in a “disastrous” conference call that lasted little more than 20 minutes, the BBC reports. Attendees claim the call was simply a “box-ticking exercise” and have criticised Johnson for leaving the discussions after 15 minutes.
The Tory leader is reported to have provoked further ire by saying that Covid had created “too much apathy” in the business community and that bosses “needed to get ready” for Brexit.
Read more about the call here.
And Johnson’s bid to spearhead an economic revival suffered another blow today, following confirmation that his “hopes of regaining the political initiative by setting out a three-year spending master plan for the rest of the parliament have been abandoned”, the Financial Times says.
The Treasury has scrapped the plans due to the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic – a decision that marks a significant setback for the PM, “who saw the event as a chance to map out his priorities for a post-Covid world”, the paper adds.
The decision has also created further tensions between Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Having already proved obstructive about plans for further lockdown restrictions, Sunak is understood to have issued the order to No. 10 to axe the spending plan, instead favouring a one-year package aimed at supporting employment and boosting public services during the ongoing health crisis.