The government has been accused of trying to manipulate announcements on extra funding for poorer parts of the UK in a desperate attempt to save Boris Johnson’s premiership.
An extraordinary row blew up after Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities released a press statement – before publication of a levelling up white paper this week – saying 20 towns and cities would benefit from a “new £1.5bn brownfield fund”. The release, which named only Sheffield and Wolverhampton as recipients, said the 20 areas “will benefit from developments combining housing, leisure and business in sustainable, walkable beautiful new neighbourhoods”.
Gove added that the “radical new regeneration programme” would prove transformational and deliver on the government’s flagship policy to create a more equal country. “This huge investment in infrastructure and regeneration will spread opportunity more evenly and help to reverse the geographical inequalities which still exist in the UK.”
But after the Observer contacted senior sources at the Treasury to ask if its ministers had signed off on the promised £1.5bn, Gove’s department backtracked and confessed that the “new” fund was not new money at all but would be made up of levelling-up funds that had been announced by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in his spending review last autumn.
The confusion was seized upon by Labour and other opposition parties as evidence of the lengths Johnson and his ministers are prepared to go in order to persuade Conservative MPs in so-called “red wall” seats to stick by the prime minister before the imminent publication of a report into the “partygate” scandal this week by the senior civil servant Sue Gray. If at least 54 Tory MPs write to Sir Graham Brady saying they want Johnson to go, it would trigger a vote of confidence in the prime minister. If he were to lose the vote of Conservative MPs it would mark the end of his premiership.
Shadow levelling-up secretary Lisa Nandy said the Tories had been caught out trying to spin that extra money had been found for poorer areas when the white paper actually contained nothing they did not already know about.
“I don’t think Tory MPs are going to find it very reassuring when the supposed new pot of gold contains not a penny of new money,” Nandy said.
The SNP leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, added: “Not only is the government trying to take the public for fools, they are also trying to take their own MPs for fools. It shows the lengths they are prepared to go to keep Boris Johnson in power. It is beyond contempt.”
The Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said the episode showed the government was not “remotely serious about levelling up this country.”
Johnson has spent much of the past fortnight calling and meeting his MPs to persuade them to stick with him as the row about lockdown-busting parties has grown. One former minister told the Observer last week he had been reassured by the PM personally that his area would receive help for local industries – which had persuaded him to stay loyal.
In spite of the government’s troubles, the latest Opinium poll for the Observer shows Labour’s lead over the Tories has shrunk to 5pts, with Keir Starmer’s party on 39% (down 2pts compared with a fortnight ago) while the Tories are up 2pts on 34%.
But while the Labour bounce over partygate appears to have peaked, and gone into reverse, the party is now favoured by more voters to do a better job than the Tories on 10 out of 14 policy issues, including tackling crime and handling immigration. Both are subjects on which the Tories have traditionally been strong. On crime, Labour is now 3pts ahead of the Conservatives and on immigration it is 4pts ahead.
On Saturday night, Gray – who on Friday was asked by the Metropolitan police to make “minimal” references in her report to serious matters to do with the gatherings that the Met is investigating – was understood to have still not yet submitted her report to No 10.
Sources indicated she would only do so on a day when parliament is sitting, so Johnson would be obliged to go straight to parliament to make a statement, rather than giving him a weekend to spin its conclusions to the media. One Whitehall source said he expected the report to make “uncomfortable reading for all concerned”. Another said: “Sue Gray is very clear how she wants this handled. She will hand it over on a day parliament is sitting because she believes strongly in the propriety of the process.”
Meanwhile there were calls on Saturday night for the Met to be discharged from its investigation because of a “conflict of interest”. The demands came from officials tasked with monitoring the force who claim it cannot be trusted to deliver on such a politically sensitive case.
Unmesh Desai, whose questioning at the London Assembly last Tuesday led to the Met commissioner Cressida Dick announcing the investigation, said an outside police force needed to take over the inquiry.
Desai, Labour’s London Assembly policing and crime spokesperson, said he was writing to the commissioner this week raising his concerns that Dick’s boss is, in effect, the home secretary, Priti Patel, who in turn owes her position to Johnson.
“It’s a clear conflict of interest. Wouldn’t it be better for an outside force to investigate?” said Desai, a member of the police and crime committee which scrutinises policing in London. Speaking on behalf of a number of committee members, Desai added: “You could even call in a retired chief constable to oversee it, the evidence is all there.”
Johnson controversially backed Patel after she was found to have bullied staff in an internal inquiry in 2020. The home secretary has recently thrown her full support behind the prime minister over the lockdown parties. Patel had prompted further controversy last year after handing Dick a two-year extension as Met commissioner despite a series of scandals that have embroiled the country’s most senior police officer.
Desai will also urge the commissioner to make sure Met officers are investigated for potential breaches of Covid regulations while deployed at Downing Street.
He will ask the commissioner to “review” the Met’s diplomatic protection group, which is tasked with monitoring premises such as 10 Downing Street, amid concern they may have colluded by allowing the parties to take place.