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Andy Burnham: 'Whitehall has got to get used to places like this answering them back'

Andy Burnham (Photography by Debbie Ellis)

11 min read

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham talks to Sienna Rodgers about Sue Gray, transplanting Westminster to the North, and his plans for no less than ‘the wholesale rewiring of Britain’

“I’ll be honest, I’ve found it quite hard at times that I’ve never been asked to speak at Labour Party conference in this role,” Andy Burnham tells The House. Party insiders and political journalists have known of the Greater Manchester mayor’s unhappiness at being overlooked for a slot in the main hall in recent years, but his candour is striking.

“I see the anonymous briefings and things. I’m well beyond caring about it very much,” Burnham says, although he looks upset. “Why does the system down there feel the need to brief against people? It’s not a new thing, I saw it when I was in government. I’d like to think – and you can speak to people who were there when I was a minister – I didn’t really ever do that type of thing. It is quite macho and aggressive and negative.”

“Whitehall has got to get used to places like this answering them back”

The “King of the North” epithet attributed to Burnham during the pandemic was used affectionately by many in the country but sometimes disparagingly by those in his own party. In bars at Labour conferences, talk often centred not on Keir Starmer’s keynote speech or latest policy offer but on which MPs in the Manchester area were willing to give up their seat for Burnham to have a run at the top job. Hardly ideal for the leadership.

Since leaving Parliament in 2017, Burnham has made clear the scale of his ambitions in the metro mayor role. However, despite having personally voted for Starmer to be leader, the relationship between the two men has appeared rocky. Such tensions are fodder for Westminster gossip, yes, but also of importance nationally: as a Labour government becomes more likely, the question of whether the pair can work well together is increasingly pertinent.

Along with London mayor Sadiq Khan, Burnham recently defied the Labour leadership by backing a ceasefire in Gaza. Former minister Ed Balls speculated on his podcast that this divergence was caused by Starmer being “disrespectful” towards the mayors. Specifically, he mocked Burnham in a joke to lobby journalists last Christmas – saying he would be pleased “his boyhood team Argentina” won the World Cup but sad “his boyhood team France” lost, as well as “his boyhood teams Morocco and Croatia” – and publicly blamed Khan’s ULEZ policy for the Uxbridge by-election defeat. The Labour leader is reaping what he has sown, suggested Balls.

Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham (Photography by Debbie Ellis)

Burnham rejects the analysis: “I can see how somebody looking from the outside would possibly draw that conclusion, but it isn’t true. That’s not the way we work.” Was he admonished for the ceasefire call? “No,” he says. “There’s an understanding of the fact that this will look different to different people in different places. I make the point myself that it feels a little bit like 2003, where it just isn’t possible to have a firm, three-line whip party line because, through Iraq, I remember just how hard that was.” (Soon after this interview, Starmer whipped his MPs against a ceasefire and suffered a mass rebellion.)

According to Burnham, there has been a détente in recent months. One might assume the broker would be Angela Rayner, who now holds the levelling up brief. Starmer’s deputy first met Burnham when she was a trade union official and he a Westminster politician at “an annual get-beaten-up-by-Unison-activists when you’re a health minister in the Blair government”. He remembers telling her she should consider entering politics.

“Angela is a really, really good friend and somebody I’ve always worked closely with. We go back a long way,” Burnham says. Yet it is not to the flame-haired Mancunian he points to as playing peacemaker but instead Sue Gray, the civil servant “partygate” investigator turned chief of staff to the Labour leader.

“There’s a real opportunity for an incoming Labour government to work in a way that we’ve never quite seen before,” Burnham says. “The way Sue Gray has gone about working with us and discussing that opportunity with us is great. It’s really positive. I think Sue, given her civil service experience, understands the shortcomings of the way we’ve run the country. And that much is clear to me from working with her.”

“As a country, we haven’t got a political discourse yet that’s ready for devolution. We need to get there”

The mayor returns again and again to his frustration with Westminster and the need, in his view, for a radical overhaul of the system. The answer to almost everything is devolution.

“I don’t think it’s any more than 50 people who are actually making decisions that truly affect national life.” Echoing Conservative criticisms of “the blob”, he continues: “Most of the cabinet, not all. And then 20 to 30 advisers slash senior civil servants. That is basically what runs the country. And it’s dangerous, really.”

For Burnham, this came to the fore most obviously during the pandemic. Ahead of giving evidence to the Covid inquiry, the mayor grants The House a preview of what he plans to say. “It really felt like it was it was chaos,” he recalls.

“I remember a meeting with [then deputy chief medical officer] Jonathan Van-Tam... It wasn’t Jonathan’s fault, I’m not having a go at him. But we asked quite directly: are they certain that this tier approach is going to work? If we’re going to take on the pain, is it actually going to reduce the case rate and is it going to work? Basically the answer was ‘we’re not sure, possibly not’. That was extraordinary.”

Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham (Photography by Debbie Ellis)

Having been denied by No 10 the ability to continue local testing and contact tracing, with Westminster opting for a “national outsourced model”, Burnham is adamant that “a more devolved approach to the pandemic would have been a much safer approach”.

The former minister is exasperated by the disregard with which devolution is treated, and incensed by “the Westminster narrative” on political events. “It’s always been a bit of a frustration to constantly have everything we’re doing put back through the lens of ‘who’s up who’s down’ and Strangers’ Bar,” he says. “That everything’s a split or everything’s a leadership challenge. As a country, we haven’t got a political discourse yet that’s ready for devolution. We need to get there.”

He lays the blame for this not only with politicians: “It is the media class as well, and that sometimes unhealthy closeness between the two down there... We all have to break out of the ‘Westminster is the be all and end all’ mentality. Because it’s politics done in a very narrow way, in an overexaggerated, supercharged, high octane way.”

Burnham is evidently excited about Labour getting into power nationally: as he puts it, “there’s a fair chance that this will be the first government ever to have a significant delivery system run by the same party at both national and regional level”. Yet this will surely come with friction – the kind Westminster journalists will report.

Just as Conservative West Midlands mayor Andy Street experienced with the Birmingham-Manchester section of HS2 being cancelled, there may be awkward moments between Burnham and a Starmer government. What does he anticipate the relationship will look like then? “It’s not a bad thing if Andy Street says to his own party, ‘maybe you need to think again about this’. And it wouldn’t be if I did. The world shouldn’t end.”

Rishi Sunak’s U-turn on the northern leg of HS2 – made without consulting Greater Manchester – was “a low point” and “the worst of British political culture”, Burnham says. To add insult to injury, it took place at the Conservative conference in Manchester. “In many ways, it was a really odd thing, that conference experience. It was like Westminster transplanted here, in that period when no one was telling us anything. They’re in the city but we’re just in the dark.”

What if Westminster really were transplanted to the North? Asked whether MPs and peers should be decanted for a time to a northern location if the restoration of Parliament calls for it, Burnham replies: “Well, a building of a very similar age has been substantially renovated, it’s just over the road, it looks a bit like Parliament: Manchester Town Hall.”

The municipal building, closed in 2018, will soon reopen. “It’s the leader of Manchester city council who’d have to decide whether it could be made available but I don’t think it would be a bad thing at all.”

In the new year, Burnham will set out his vision for the “wholesale rewiring of Britain” in a book co-written with close friend and Labour Liverpool City Region metro mayor Steve Rotheram. “If I sit from where I am here, thinking that nudging, nudging, nudging the Whitehall system eventually gets us the northwest of England we’ve always dreamed of seeing, well, it doesn’t. You have to rethink the system completely,” he explains.

“We all have to break out of the ‘Westminster is the be all and end all’ mentality”

The sweeping reforms on Burnham’s wish list would not allow moves such as the top-down approach to dumping HS2: “It should be codified in our constitution that that couldn’t be done.” As well as requiring the regions and nations to be formally consulted about certain decisions, his dream constitution would insist on equal living standards across the country.

“I heard a narrative when I was in government a lot – that all that constitutional stuff, it’s not really a priority, we’ll get round to it at a different time. I’ve come around to the thinking that you can’t actually do that, that the wiring of the country is part of the problem,” he says.

To Burnham, reform of the upper chamber is urgent. “That impetus around reforming the Lords that was there in the second term of the [Blair] Labour government – just letting that go was a mistake.”

Starmer initially pledged to overhaul the House of Lords within five years – as recommended by Gordon Brown’s constitutional commission – but the promise has already been watered down and is no longer a first-term priority. Burnham responds: “Within, let’s say, two terms, it should be completed”.

The mayor has huge initiatives of a local kind too, of course. He beams with pride over the launch of the Bee Network – his idea of a “London-style” integrated transport system, starting with publicly run buses in the city, which he says “overturns a big plank of [Margaret] Thatcher’s Britain”. It's probably the biggest statement yet of the power of English devolution to really change things that matter.”

Burnham refuses to conclude, as shadow cabinet members have done, that levelling up is “dead under the Tories”: HS2 troubles aside, he is working positively with ministers on a new funding arrangement that will introduce a “single settlement” for Greater Manchester.

He has also been awarded new influence over education, with which he plans to introduce a Greater Manchester Baccalaureate (MBacc). “If I’m re-elected next May, integrating technical education will become as big an obsession as integrating transport has been in the second term,” he says. “In terms of those issues Westminster perhaps has not given equal attention to, technical education is a prime candidate.”

Unlike the English Baccalaureate, the MBacc would include GCSEs in engineering, creative subjects (music, art and design, drama), business studies and computer science. “All of that is about preparing people for new options at 16 that are linked to the strongest areas of the Greater Manchester economy.”

Burnham says his missions to reregulate buses and revolutionise education are about “making a system out of things that were broken up in the 80s, 90s and 2000s”. He wants to destroy Thatcher’s legacy but also much of Blair’s – despite having played a part in the latter.

Above all, he wants to be heard. The mayor recounts a Covid meeting with central decision-makers in which the Manchester leaders were “all on mute, and they would let us off mute if they decided to”. They were, quite literally, silenced. In a statement that seems to sum up what drives him, Burnham says: “Whitehall has got to get used to places like this answering them back.”

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