Government remains focused on levelling up despite Covid, insists minister

Northern Conservative MPs write to PM urging the cost of Covid not to be paid for by downgrading the levelling-up agenda
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By John Johnston

27 Oct 2020

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi has insisted Boris Johnson is focused on "levelling-up" the north of England after a group of Tory MPs said lockdowns were fuelling "disparity" across the country.

More than 50 Conservative MPs have written to Boris Johnson calling on him to set out a "roadmap out of lockdown" after Warrington and parts of Nottinghamshire became the latest to enter the most severe lockdown restrictions.

The newly-launched Northern Research Group, which sent the letter, is led by former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry who has previously branded the lockdown strategy as "London-centric".

The MPs, which include those representing constituencies in the north of England, Wales and Scotland, said the government’s regional lockdown approach risked abandoning his "levelling-up" agenda and had "exposed in sharp relief the deep structural and systemic disadvantaged faced by our communities".

They wrote: "We do however share concerns that the cost of Covid could be paid for by downgrading of the levelling-up agenda, and northern constituencies like ours will be left behind.

"We believe this would threaten to undermine the government's hard-won mandate in December, at a time when the political and economic case for the levelling-up agenda we have been elected to deliver has never been more essential."

They added: "Never has there been a more pertinent and urgent political and economic case to support people living in the North. However, instead of moving forwards on our shared ambitions, the cost of Covid and the virus itself threatens to send the North into reverse."

Responding to the letter, business minister Nadhim Zahawi said he shared their "concerns" but insisted the PM had not abandoned his election commitment to "level up" the north.

And pressed on how areas could escape the highest level of restrictions, Zahawi said each region would be reviewed every 28 days to see whether there had been a fall in infections rates.

"In every area that is entering tier 3 - the highest tier level - there is a provision within that to say that after 28 days it will be reviewed to see where we have got to," he said.

"If we work together, both nationally and locally, and do the right thing, follow the rules in that tier, [and] work with local leaders... then I think we can get through this and come out the other end.

"It is a really tough balance between the harms of the virus and the harms to the economy and livelihoods and, of course, lives ultimately in health if you lose your job or lose your business, and we are trying to strike that balance every single day."

William Wragg, Conservative ory MP for Hazel Grove and chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee who as critical of the government's handling of the negotiations with Greater Manchester leaders about the financial support made available to the region as they entered Tier 3 restrictions, said the pandemic had "exacerbated" the need for Johnson to offer a "good deal" for the North.

"This isn't about giving government a tough time - the prime minister shares our collective priority," he said.

"But there are compelling and constructive arguments we, as a group of northern MPs, can make to government about how it delivers on its promise to level up the north."

Responding to the letter, a No.10 spokesperson 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."

John Johnston is a reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

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