Burnham, baby, Burnham

Monday 19 October 2020

The mayor of Greater Manchester is taking on the government over its Covid restrictions. By doing so, he is standing up for localism


Not that you’d guess it right now, but Andy Burnham feels quite warmly towards Boris Johnson. Since the pandemic struck, the two politicians have had cause to speak on the phone from time to time, and the mayor of Greater Manchester has more sympathy than you might imagine for the exhausted, harried, Covid-bashed and Brexit-buffeted prime minister.

This is important because it helps us understand the present stand-off between Burnham and central government: it is business, not personal. The mayor knows that Johnson has the legal authority to impose tough Tier-3 coronavirus restrictions on the Greater Manchester region any time he likes. But he also knows that the thumping Commons majority of 80 won by the PM in December depended disproportionately on the Tory breach of Labour’s so-called “Red Wall” in the North and the Midlands.

Correctly, Johnson regards those former Labour votes as “borrowed” and grasps that the Conservatives’ chances of retaining them at the next general election will not be improved by the spectacle of the PM resorting to the full force of the law to get his way in Greater Manchester.

It is significant, too, that Sir Graham Brady, the Tory MP for one of the area’s constituencies, Altrincham and Sale West, and chairman of the party’s backbench 1922 committee, has so vocally taken Burnham’s side in this dispute: there are few forces in politics stronger than a Conservative’s desire to hold on to his seat.

Yesterday, Michael Gove warned Burnham against pursuing his present strategy of “press conferences and posturing”. You might think this is an odd complaint for a man to make while he is himself holding forth on national television. But that is precisely the point. “Press conferences and posturing” are meant to be the preserve of Cabinet ministers.

Not that you’d guess it right now, but Andy Burnham feels quite warmly towards Boris Johnson. Since the pandemic struck, the two politicians have had cause to speak on the phone from time to time, and the mayor of Greater Manchester has more sympathy than you might imagine for the exhausted, harried, Covid-bashed and Brexit-buffeted prime minister.

This is important because it helps us understand the present stand-off between Burnham and central government: it is business, not personal. The mayor knows that Johnson has the legal authority to impose tough Tier-3 coronavirus restrictions on the Greater Manchester region any time he likes. But he also knows that the thumping Commons majority of 80 won by the PM in December depended disproportionately on the Tory breach of Labour’s so-called “Red Wall” in the North and the Midlands.

Correctly, Johnson regards those former Labour votes as “borrowed” and grasps that the Conservatives’ chances of retaining them at the next general election will not be improved by the spectacle of the PM resorting to the full force of the law to get his way in Greater Manchester.

It is significant, too, that Sir Graham Brady, the Tory MP for one of the area’s constituencies, Altrincham and Sale West, and chairman of the party’s backbench 1922 committee, has so vocally taken Burnham’s side in this dispute: there are few forces in politics stronger than a Conservative’s desire to hold on to his seat.

Yesterday, Michael Gove warned Burnham against pursuing his present strategy of “press conferences and posturing”. You might think this is an odd complaint for a man to make while he is himself holding forth on national television. But that is precisely the point. “Press conferences and posturing” are meant to be the preserve of Cabinet ministers.

Gove’s message to Burnham – delivered with the silky menace of an antagonist who will make you a nice cup of tea before ordering a napalm strike on your village – was quite clear: get back into your funny little Mancunian box, Mr Mayor, and listen to your Oasis records while the grown-ups run the country.

But Burnham has no intention of getting back into his box. He is a former health secretary and was runner-up in the Labour leadership election of 2015. He cut his teeth taking on Gordon Brown, who is a much scarier Scot than Gove.

As it happens, Burnham has also been suggesting to Cabinet ministers throughout the crisis that metro mayors such as himself, Andy Street (West Midlands) and Steve Rotherham (Liverpool City Region) be included in relevant meetings of the Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall, or be given a separate forum in which to air grievances and make proposals, without having to resort to media interviews to gain a hearing.

Consider Burnham’s position. The resurgence of Covid-19 in Greater Manchester is testing hospital capacity to the limit. Though still tentative at this stage, the evidence across the country suggests that the fatality rates will be mercifully lower in the second wave of the virus, thanks to improved clinical practice and the administration of drugs, especially dexamethasone. The flipside is that more patients will spend longer recovering in intensive care and high dependency units.

The region is already struggling economically in Tier 2, braced for 150,000 to 200,000 redundancies when Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme ends on 31 October. Tier 3 would impose stricter rules on socialising; close pubs and bars (except when they operate, in effect, as restaurants); strongly discourage travel in and out of the high-alert area; ban wedding receptions; and much else.

So what does Burnham want? Cash, scientific help, and a bit of respect. If that sounds mercenary – well, welcome to politics as it is actually practised. The Mayor grasps that he has one shot at a decent deal with central government.

What is more or less certain is that once Greater Manchester accepts Tier-3 status, it can expect to stay there for quite some time. So he needs reassurances up front, before he approves Whitehall’s charming plan to put signs on the M56 flashing, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here”.

His ace in the hole is Johnson’s deep reluctance to impose a second UK-wide lockdown. First, an emergency measure of this sort would look like a capitulation to Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, who backs the call by the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) for a short “circuit-breaker” shutdown of the whole United Kingdom. (Wales is already set on such a course, presently finalising its own devolved nationwide lockdown which could be introduced as soon as Friday.)

Second, a UK-wide closure, however brief, would amount to switching off the economy again – in the chancellor’s opinion, a pointless act of political melodrama that would have terrible consequences for employment, business confidence and the prospects of eventual recovery. In fact, for Sunak, this would come close to being a resigning matter.

The upshot of which is that, as the winter takes hold and coronavirus case numbers rise, Johnson and Sunak badly need local lockdowns to work. This is why the latter let it be known yesterday afternoon that he would be willing to hand over more money to Greater Manchester to “get a deal over the line”. Better, in the chancellor’s eyes, to spend a bit of extra cash in a series of regional agreements than to send the national economy into freefall.

As grubby as all this may look, it is also extremely significant. When George Osborne, as chancellor, launched his initiative in 2014 to give the Greater Manchester area its own mayor, it was the heart of his campaign to bring coherence to political leadership and economic strategy in the region – his beloved “Northern Powerhouse”.

Osborne described the Manchester agreement as “the thing of which I think I am most proud”, while David Cameron recalls in his memoirs: “Labour was furious at seeing the blueprint for the north drawn up by a Conservative government with support from Labour council leaders. It felt great politically, and more than that, it felt right.”

Quite so: it also led to the direct election of six new metro mayors in May 2017 (two more have been elected since), each representing a group of combined local authorities, and granted both investment funds and bespoke devolved powers over housing, transport, planning, training and economic development.

All Westminster politicians claim to be in favour of localism, decentralisation and devolution. Vanishingly few are prepared to hand over real power. What Cameron and Osborne intended was not to let go of the Whitehall reins, but to rebalance the economy between North and South, and bring greater order to the tangled mess of municipal authority.

Yet localism, like a virus, is not so easily controlled. What Burnham has done in the past few days is to show what can happen when a metro mayor refuses to behave as the branch manager of central government, and instead musters all his political nous to represent the people who elected him.

This is not a pleasant experience for ministers used to the hollowed-out, toothless local government bequeathed to them by the Thatcher years and decades of under-funding. But it isn’t meant to be pleasant. It is meant to give a meaningful voice to all the “left behind” voters that Westminster politicians claim to be so worried about.

Burnham’s stand moves the dial of localism in this country away from gesture and “City of Culture” tokenism to power and money: the real stuff, in other words. It is germinal, messy, ill-tempered. But it matters.

So used have we become to institutional decay that it is easy to miss democratic enhancement when it is staring us in the face. For once, Britain is not breaking up, but growing up.