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The week in Kent politics: MPs in mutinous mood over coronavirus restrictions as Boris Johnson faces yet another rebellion

The fact coronavirus does not respect borders has a been a phrase often repeated by Boris Johnson - more recently adapted to include the fact the pandemic does not know it is Christmas.

We are all equally vulnerable and we are all at risk, as the minister Michael Gove said in March when the Prime Minister, the health secretary and the chief medical officer all succumbed to the infection.

Boris Johnson faces mutinous MPs
Boris Johnson faces mutinous MPs

The World Health Organisation said something similar in February, only it applied to countries.

“This virus does not respect borders. It does not distinguish between races or ethnicities. It has no regard for a country’s GDP or level of development.”

It is against that backdrop the government has placed different parts of the UK into different tiers and the decisions have stirred up a political storm, particularly in tier three Kent.

For a number of increasingly vociferous Conservative MPs in Kent, ministers have come down on the wrong side.

For a large part of the county, there has been genuine puzzlement that areas that would be placed in the lowest tier based on infection rates and other factors have been elevated to tier three.

The mood among Kent MPs representing these areas is pretty mutinous and they are making no secret of their dismay; open letters to health secretary Matt Hancock make for pretty uncompromising reading.

Whether they will vote against their own government when the restrictions are debated next week will probably hinge on whether they can extract any commitment from Matt Hancock to look again at the decision to place their constituency areas in the highest risk tiers.

The prospects of the government engineering a u-turn that doesn’t look like a u-turn and lifting the blanket restrictions are limited; a review in mid-December offers a chance to engage reverse gear and the push back from MPs could be a significant factor.

The difficulty is that this political yo-yoing will leave many people - already thoroughly confused about restrictions - even more perplexed.

But as the Kent MPs point out, if people lack confidence in the government’s system, they are less likely to feel the restrictions imposed on them are justified.

Kent is in Tier 3
Kent is in Tier 3

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IT is not just the Conservatives who are divided on the issue of tier three restrictions in Kent; Labour has its own differences. While Swale council leader Roger Truelove said he rejected the idea of individual districts and boroughs having their own own restrictions, the Labour group of councillors at Ashford council has distanced itself from this position. Labour group leader Brendan Chilton tweeted: “Cllr Trulove speaks for Labour in Swale, but does not speak for Labour in the rest of Kent. Ashford’s Labour councillors are opposed to our Borough being placed in Tier 3. There is no justification for it and we should be moved down to at least Tier 2.”

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JUST how bad a financial pickle are councils in? The convergence of the coronavirus crisis coupled with a gaping black hole intheir budgets - a legacy of the government’s austerity drive - has cast more doom and gloom across town halls about budget cuts.

The Chancellor said in his statement that councils’ Core Spending Power (CSP) will increase by 4.5% (£2.1bn) in cash terms in 2021-22.

However, that is not as good as 2020-21, when the increase was 5.1%.

So, not everything in the localgovernment garden is rosy. According to the Institute for Financial Studies (IFS) Rishi Sunak’s spending review could see a council tax rise of £70 per household and people on Universal Credit could end up worse off next year.

There is always a sleight of hand in the government's announcements about budget handouts. What tends to happen is that ministers willspin it in such a way as to make it look like councils are getting more cash but in effect they are simply giving them the right to increase their income through higher council tax.

The politician in charge of Kent County Council finances, Cllr Peter Oakford, is wary, saying that any government cop out over budget allocations will not be welcome.

Head to our politics page for expert analysis and all the latest news from your politicians and councils.

For the latest coronavirus news and advice, click here.

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