The Prime Minister used the vulnerable and the impoverished, already suffering due to the pandemic, as pawns in his self-preservation strategy, notes Sam Bright

Boris Johnson’s Government is being accused of blackmailing MPs critical of the Prime Minister, by threatening to withdraw funding to their constituencies.

Johnson’s regime is teetering on the brink of collapse, following revelations that more than a dozen parties were held in Downing Street and other Government departments during COVID-19 lockdown periods in 2020 and 2021 – with the knowledge and even the participation of the Prime Minister.

This has resulted in harsh criticism from Conservative MPs – who have seen the standing of their party drop rapidly in the polls – and the defection of one MP, Christian Wakeford of Bury South, to the Labour Party.

However, in an effort to quell the rebellion, it appears as though Government whips – the MPs who enforce party discipline – have been resorting to extreme measures. This morning, William Wragg, who chairs the House of Commons Public Administration Committee, said that the whips “were threatening to withdraw investments for Members of Parliament’s constituencies which are funded from the public purse”.

He added that Downing Street and ministers had also been “encouraging the publication of stories in the press, seeking to embarrass those who they suspect of lacking confidence in the Prime Minister”. Any MP facing “intimidation” from Johnson’s Government should report the offending party to the police, Wragg said.

In effect, therefore, Johnson’s Government has been threatening to punish those who rely on public services – commonly the poor, elderly and vulnerable – in order to protect the Prime Minister from the aftershocks of his lockdown-breaking exploits. Many of Johnson’s fiercest internal critics represent ‘Red Wall’ seats – former industrial constituencies in the north of England, the midlands and north Wales – that display higher levels of deprivation and a greater reliance on public services.

LBC Westminster Correspondent Ben Kentish has claimed that the Government also threatened to withdraw local funding to Conservative rebels in October 2020, when England footballer Marcus Rashford was lobbying the Government to extend the free school meals scheme provided to disadvantaged children.

Wakeford has confirmed these stories, claiming that the whips threatened to deprive his constituency of a new school, if he voted against the Government. “I was threatened that I would not get the new school for Radcliffe if I didn’t vote in one particular way. This is a town that’s not had a high school for the best part of 10 years,” the new Labour MP told journalists today.

This is even more shocking in the context of rising levels of deprivation and inequality in Britain, as a result of the economic downturn suffered during the pandemic.

For example, as of this month, 20.8% of all pupils in England are eligible for free school meals – up from 17.3% last year, an increase of more than 20%. As a result, 1.74 million pupils can now claim free school meals in England. A staggering 39% of secondary school children were eligible for free school meals in Blackpool according to 2020-21 data, compared with 25.6% in 2011/12.

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A similar trend has also been witnessed in relation to the distribution of emergency food parcels. The Trussell Trust, which runs the largest network of food banks in the UK, distributed 32% more emergency food parcels in 2020/21 than in 2019/2020. Some 1.9 million food parcels were distributed in 2019/2020 (723,000 of these to children), compared with 2.5 million on 2020/21 (980,000 to children). Overall, there was also a 62% increase in food bank usage from 2017-18 to 2020-21.

And although statistics on child poverty during the pandemic are yet to be released, the trend has been heading in the wrong direction for some time. In 2019-20, 31% of children in the UK were in poverty, rising from 27% in 2010-11. Overall poverty also stood at 22% in the UK prior to the pandemic. Further data is due to be released in March this year.

The pandemic has also placed extreme pressure on the NHS, that has been struggling to cope with dramatic surges of COVID-19 cases, while attempting to ensure that people are treated for other serious diseases. In the first year of the pandemic, from February 2020 to May 2021, the number of people waiting for NHS treatment in England grew by a fifth, from 4.4 million to 5.3 million.

As has been highlighted by a recent paper in the Lancet health journal, health outcomes are profoundly worse in more deprived parts of the country. Men in parts of Blackpool are, for example, expected to live for 68.3 years, compared to 95.3 years in some areas of Kensington and Chelsea in London.

This all stands in the context of the Government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ fund – dedicated to neglected parts of the country – promising just £1.25 billion to areas that have lost £25.5 billion in spending power since 2010.

Additional reporting by Sascha Lavin

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