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Andy Burnham: "I'm not hatching any plans to get back to Westminster any time soon"

Andy Burnham holds a news conference on October 20, 2020 | Image: Alamy

10 min read

After Andy Burnham's Covid spat with Boris Johnson, the pair did not speak for nearly a year. With a new vision of how 'levelling up' could work in Greater Manchester, the metro mayor tells Kate Proctor his plans for his second term, how Keir Starmer must set out his stall, and why he isn't planning a Westminster return... yet

It’s been almost a year since Labour’s metro mayor Andy Burnham stood outside the Bridgewater Hall and conducted his dramatic on-camera reveal that Greater Manchester would be plunged into Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions with a third less government cash than he had asked for. In his now trademark raincoat, he called Boris Johnson’s government “brutal”, decrying this was no way to run a country.

It was the political scrap of 2020, and Twitter swiftly anointed him King of the North. Burnham may not have triumphed in terms of getting all the money he felt the region’s 2.8 million people deserved (£90m) but he certainly got himself noticed.

When former Chancellor George Osborne set up the metro mayor model in the 2010s, it’s unlikely New Labour-era Burnham reincarnated as political streetfighter was what he had in mind. But while 2020 was a year of heat and high drama, 2021 has been quieter for Greater Manchester-Westminster relations.

I’ve spoken to many ministers since then, but it was October last year [the] last time I spoke to [Boris Johnson].

In fact, at the time of writing, Burnham hasn’t spoken to the Prime Minister for almost a year. The UK’s most senior politician and arguably the most powerful English regional mayor seemingly have no direct relationship.

“I’ve spoken to many ministers since then, but it was October last year [the] last time I spoke to him,” he says.

Does the fallout from the coronavirus restrictions row make life hard? “I think other mayors are in the same position. I wouldn’t say it’s just me because I don’t think anyone, from what I know, has necessarily had any more recent contact. Perhaps some of the Conservative mayors in the recent election campaign. But I don’t think others have.”

This isn’t a problem if there’s support from the cabinet team, he says. On other departments he has to deal with, he explains, “some engage better than others”.

But if he’s been out in the cold, he’s hoping his plans for Tory conference, which takes place in Manchester, wont reignite the embers of that 2020 feud. First, he’s got a stunt planned where he will unveil the new livery of his London-style integrated transport plan, the Bee Network, for which he needs both capital and revenue support from government to get fares as low as they are in London. Tory Party delegates might get a flavour of Greater Manchester’s tram, bus and cycling network, with some of the yellow and black branding on display with a strategically parked bus.

Second, he’s putting in a bid to central government for a bespoke “levelling up” deal for Greater Manchester. Rather than going into October’s spending review with the usual shopping list, he wants to draw up a joint plan with Johnson for a shared set of goals, for example taking carbon out of the transport network, and retrofitting homes to make them greener, which would also create jobs in the process. This could “reset” the relationship with government, he believes.

Burnham said: “We want to agree a set of objectives, tangible objectives, linked to what the government is trying to achieve nationally. If they back us with the funding to deliver, then I’m happy to be held to account by the government for delivering those things. I’m happy to be the person in front of the Public Accounts Committee [which keeps track of public spending].”

In terms of carbon reduction, he thinks he has a real lever through the Bee Network. He believes this is an offer he can make to government ahead of other mayors, and wants to work on a headline carbon reduction.

Exactly how much money Burnham is going to ask the Treasury for has not yet been made public, but it won’t be small change. He dismisses the Towns Fund and Levelling Up Fund, current Tory vehicles for peppering regions with infrastructure money, as a “scattering” of cash that doesn’t create real levelling up. “We can join the dots on the ground, make sense of it,” he says.

Burnham, who was re-elected to a second term in May, has clearly been invigorated politically by his time as mayor and the clout he has managed to have nationally and within Greater Manchester. He told the New Statesman recently he has more clarity on what he is about as a politician and explains to The House that, in essence, that is “rolling back the 80s”.  “I feel like [the 80s] was when things changed for the worse in this country, both in terms of the demise of certain industries, the loss of affordable public transport, council housing,” he says.” I believe you trace a lot of our problems back to then and the sadness for me is that New Labour didn’t fix those things. It did some good things, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t fix those things.”

And is Burnham’s record one of unalloyed triumph? Critics would highlight the significant failures of Greater Manchester Police, which coincided with his first term, as a weak spot in an otherwise decent résumé. He has political oversight of the force which failed to properly record 80,000 crimes in one year, letting down victims across the region. Changes include replacing the chief constable and ordering an inquiry into its failings. Burnham has said repeatedly he does not run the force but holds it to account.

I do want Keir to win the next election and I’ll do what I can to support that.

Before the interview I was prepped by an adviser on exactly what Burnham would say if I asked him the question “do you want to be the next leader of the Labour Party?” in a not-so-subtle nudge not to waste time on the well-thumbed topic. Burnham says he’s committed to two full terms in Manchester with “100 per cent” of his focus. Though, curiously, in an answer about his plans for the region he then lets slip he’s also got a vision for what he’d work on in a third term. “We’re rolling back transport reforms and as we get into the remainder of this second term and then hopefully a third, it would be a case of rolling back housing reforms that have really hurt us”, he says, adding he’s excited he gets to fix things.

So Burnham for Greater Manchester 2024? Checking back in with the same adviser, I’m told not to regard that comment as a commitment he will run again. Though it sounds as though Burnham has got a third-term plan just in case the next phase of his political career doesn’t involve a boomerang back to Westminster. 

Of his ambitions for the future, he says: “I do want Keir to win the next election and I’ll do what I can to support that. When I left Westminster I tried to say to myself, rather than this hedging thing, just answer honestly.”

That honesty landed him in hot water after the calamitous May local elections for Starmer, despite Burnham’s best intentions in believing that, if he gave a straight answer on his future, “maybe it’ll go away”. Instead his remark to journalists: “In the distant future, if the party were ever to feel it needed me, well I’m here and they should get in touch,” sent the political rumour mill into overdrive.

Of his honest answer, he now reflects: “I’m not sure it’s worked out particularly well.”

Does he regret how that played out? “I guess I regret a little bit more how the media always plays this… [or] maybe it’s the politicians’ fault originally. I’m giving an honest answer. I’m serving a full second term. I can’t really say it any clearer than that. I’m not hatching any plans to get back anytime soon.”

The last time he spoke to Starmer was on the day of the Batley and Spen by-election on 1 July, chatting through what they expected the result to be (Labour won). “It was just a really good chat,” he says.

Burnham doesn’t have his own slot for a speech at Party Conference in Brighton, despite being among the most powerful of the regional mayors. Labour insiders speculate this is deliberate to make sure the more naturally charismatic and demonstrably passionate Labour figures don’t steal the limelight.

While Twitter will tell you some find Burnham’s slight “down with the kids” vibe a little cringe-worthy, he gets stuck in and he gets the headlines. In the last few weeks alone, Burnham was filmed gamely singing Oasis’s Wonderwall at the launch of the Greater Manchester Music Commission, and trying and failing to skateboard on a visit to Salford skatepark.

His teenage daughter Annie runs the “behind the scenes” nightmayor2021 Instagram account, with shots of a young Burnham interspersed with him at a recent New Order gig, or at home in North Face clothing, Clarks Wallabees and Birkenstocks with the family dog. The most nervous he looks all interview is when I bring this up. Apparently she told him his Instagram presence was “woeful”. He adds timidly: “It’s a nice other side of things, isn’t it?”

On Vogue praising his style, he laughs: 'God knows how, but I’ll take it.'

And after his government spat, Vogue decided he had a certain “allure” – his political passion, much-commented-on dark eyelashes, and raincoats proving irresistible to some. That North Face raincoat was in fact bought in the middle-class haven of Bath. Does he have a stylist? “Noooooooooo!” On Vogue praising his style, he laughs: “God knows how, but I’ll take it.”

He has high praise for Starmer for being Johnson’s “worst nightmare” at PMQs with his detailed approach and searching questions, but adds politics is more than a back and forth over the despatch box.

“He doesn’t bluster, so it’s quite a good foil for the Prime Minister. Politics is more than PMQs. We’ve already seen that Keir is more than capable of winning PMQs on a fairly regular basis and the challenge is to win those big arguments out in the country as well.” Burnham says Starmer’s visits, where he goes to a region for two or three days (recently Blackpool), are clever and not something politicians have done before. “I would definitely say to do more of that, to really engage and [allow people] to get to know the Keir that I got to know when I was shadowing the home secretary and he joined my team. Keir is one of those people that the more you see of him, the more you like him.”

“They do need to set out more of their stall,” Burnham adds. “I want to see a stronger commitment to devolution from the Labour Party than we’ve had so far and I’m hoping that will increasingly come through because there are Labour mayors around the country doing really positive things.”

And for Burnham, his one indicator of positive change is reforming Greater Manchester’s public transport system, so badly damaged by the bus deregulation of the 1980s. In fact, getting him to stop talking about buses is quite a challenge. If all goes well with funding from central government, this will be his legacy. Tickets have to come down from as much as £4 per single journey, he says. Network Rail needs to vastly improve disabled access for people who, in 2021, are still unable to exit trains because of Victorian infrastructure across the region’s railway stations.

“I’m on a real mission about it,” he says. “If you want to see levelling up, then public transport has to be at its best. It’s only devolution that can fix these things and it’s exciting. It’s rolling back the 1980s.”

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