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Andy Burnham: “The problem now is, to a large degree, the Chancellor”

The Greater Manchester mayor on his battle with the government over Covid-19 restrictions and feeling “semi-detached” from Labour.

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Andy Burnham wishes he could ask Rishi Sunak what changed. What happened to “the generous Chancellor”, “almost the wartime Chancellor”, from the start of the coronavirus pandemic? “Why has he not followed through the logic of what he was doing?” asks the Mayor of Greater Manchester: “to help the country through the temporary crisis of coronavirus, to get into a faster recovery when it comes? I mean, that’s what I thought he was doing. But he seemed to change course, dramatically, in the middle of it. It became a more traditional Treasury, you know, ‘pull in your horns’-type thing. I really, really don’t understand.” What happened, he wonders, to “whatever it takes”?

“The ‘whatever it takes’ moment feels so long ago to me now. I mean, that feels like a world away. The shock was Bolton for me: you know, a Conservative-controlled council.” The city’s pubs and restaurants were ordered to shut, except for takeaway, on 8 September, but with no additional financial support package. “They closed down people’s workplaces overnight with nothing, basically. And I kept thinking, well, they’ll do something there, and they just never did. And that to me was, wow, we’re really in a different world here.” 

Burnham, 50, is at the centre of a battle with the government, and it is caused, he argues, by Sunak’s change of approach. “I think the problem now is, to a large degree, the Chancellor. I think he’s made wrong judgements throughout this.” (“I actually quite like him,” Burnham adds later. “This isn't personal.”) The Eat Out to Help Out scheme was “a poor judgement” and “the wrong message” coming out of lockdown.“The cost of that should have been paying for the furlough now,” Burnham argues, as the hospitality workers whom that scheme aimed to support now face further closures. “The Treasury funded more or less the more gimmicky things, and they haven’t funded proper support.” 

We are speaking, via videolink, on the morning (16 October) after an extraordinary press conference in which Burnham, on behalf of all of the local leaders in Greater Manchester, emphatically rejected the government’s plans to place the region under Tier 3 of coronavirus restrictions. He said he could not accept the people of Greater Manchester being treated “as canaries in the coalmine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy”, one he said even the government’s own medical advisers did not think would work. He argues that there isn’t enough financial support for Manchester and the surrounding area to move into the “very high” level, and wants the area to stay in Tier 2, “working towards a national circuit breaker at the right time.”

[See also: Stephen Bush: Why it is cruel to impose local lockdowns without a nationwide furlough scheme]

Burnham had woken up to find his face on the front page of many of that day’s newspapers, with the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, and the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, both accusing him of “playing party politics”. He deeply resents that suggestion. “It's about people whose businesses are hanging by a thread,” he says. “That is what this fight is about. [People who], if we just folded on this, would be pitched into poverty literally instantly.”  

“It's fundamentally flawed government policy,” Burnham adds. “They’re not funding what is needed to be done, to get the results that they say they want. If they were going to propose this approach, and follow the logic of this approach, they would fund areas properly, to get the closures that bring the virus down, but they're not doing that. So they’re not even backing their own approach.”

It is a failure of leadership from Boris Johnson, he adds. “He shouldn’t be allowing the Treasury to run the policy”. 

This political moment, of a “north-south” divide being both exposed and intensified by coronavirus and the government’s response, echoes Burnham’s long-standing critique of a “London-centric” political system. “I think the New Statesman used to take the piss out of me, on a regular basis, for it!” he cuts in, laughing. He is frustrated that his analysis, now so pertinent, of the alienation so many feel from the centre of political power in the UK, was rejected by the Labour Party when he stood for leader twice before, in 2010 and 2015.

“It's deep in the culture of all the political parties. There's a patronising approach to the north, both a neglectful, but also a patronising sort of approach. And it then denigrates northern voices when they speak out as a whole.” He mimics someone moaning: “oh here they go”, and reflects “with some hurt” on the “sneering coverage” he has witnessed down the years. “I've faced that all my life. I can play the professional northerner and it’s easy, you know, the chips and gravy thing and all. In many ways I’ve been my own worst enemy at times on some of that. But it’s meant that northern voices in the political arena have not carried the same weight as voices from other parts of the country.” 

He speaks of his alienation from the Labour Party, describing himself as “semi-detached”. “I do feel, in some ways, quite distant from the party. I look back to the leadership campaigns, and I've said this, I don't think they’ve treated me particularly well over the years.” He reflects bitterly on his time as health secretary in Gordon Brown’s cabinet from 2009-10. “I just think to myself, why didn’t the Labour Party back me on social care? Why? Why did they fight me on social care? Why did the Labour Party not back me on the voice of the north and investment? Just, those things really stick with me.” 

And despite the high profile he has held during the struggle with the government over Covid-19 restrictions, he says he doesn’t feel like “the kind of player that makes things happen in Labour. I don’t feel I’m in that position really, anymore.” 

His 16 years in parliament as MP for Leigh from 2001-17 made him “more distant from Labour and from Westminster”. “I went into parliament as a very tribal Labour politician... as fierce as my football allegiances”. He recalls arriving in parliament, “and just seeing how it wasn’t a team at all”. He remembers feeling “shocked by the behaviour of Labour MPs, I just couldn’t get my head around that. But then, as I went through the sort of journey that I did, and I saw what at times the party did, and as I say, the London-centric nature of it, I became sort of quite, you know, increasingly distant from it.” 

Along with Steve Rotheram, the Metro Mayor of Liverpool City Region, who has also featured prominently in negotiations on Covid-19 restrictions, “we kind of made a conscious choice that, in the end, the politics that we were being absorbed in there, wasn’t our politics, really. In the end, we’re both sort of north-west lovers, we just love the place, the people. I think we just both saw, it’d be a more authentic politics for us to leave and to come into these new roles that we occupy. And I really can’t look back on it. And actually, it was liberating to leave that behind, and just start advocating for the place that you care about and the people that you care about.”

[See also: How Liverpool's Covid-19 lockdown is stoking dreams of independence]

“Westminster makes a fraud out of people, because it basically makes people say things that they don’t believe in, vote in ways that go against their principles, and no matter how strong they are, in the end, that’s what the Westminster experience does to you. It leaves you sort of, not sure what you’re all about, really, because of the way that the whip system works and the way the party system works.” 

It sounds like a nod to the recent “Spy Cops” bill in the House of Commons, which saw several Labour frontbenchers break the whip and resign in order to vote against a bill that would allow undercover police officers to commit murder and torture. “I would probably have sympathised with the rebels on that, to be honest,” he says, “but I’ve not looked at it in detail.”

In the end, he feels vindicated by his decision to champion the north as Greater Manchester’s Mayor. “I do think that, in the end, the kind of role Steve [Rotherham] and I and others [he later mentions Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands] have been doing brought the levelling up thing to the table, really.” He is proud of the fact there was “an election fought on that issue” in 2019. “That now, finally, has placed devolution and the north on a different level to before. But it wasn’t a guarantee at all.” 

Despite his criticisms of Labour, Burnham has nothing but warm words for Keir Starmer. “Keir’s been great, by the way. I mean, he’s been in constant touch with us. Having not had much contact from the party for three years, it was nice to get some contact.” Even in the short time since Starmer became leader in April, “I’ve seen him in more meetings with local and regional leaders than I probably saw any other Labour leader in all my time in politics.”

And despite his ongoing concerns about the “London-centric” nature of politics, he doesn’t think it is fair to dismiss Starmer as a “London lawyer”. “I didn’t know him particularly well, until he came into parliament in 2015,” when Burnham was shadow home secretary, and Starmer was a shadow minister on the team. “I might have thought to myself, ‘is Keir the “London lawyer” and does he behave like that?’ And it’s absolutely the complete and utter reverse.” He’s a “complete team player” and “rang families and offered his time and care for free” while Burnham was championing the cause of the Hillsborough families. “We would be making a great mistake as a party if we allow him to be branded in that way. Because, though he lives in London and is a lawyer, there is so much more to Keir Starmer than that.” 

Burnham didn’t endorse either Starmer or Lisa Nandy at the last Labour leadership contest. “I love and respect them both,” he says. But he admits he “felt very proud” of Nandy, who similarly highlighted the north-south divide.

“I think Lisa absolutely could, and possibly will, be a future Labour leader. She’s an authentic voice.” He says he has “observed her closely” since they entered parliament as neighbouring MPs. She was “more of a political operator, if you like, when she came into the role, but she really changed. And she kind of kind of grew into the place [of Wigan], not into Westminster, if I could put it that way. I saw how she began to represent Wigan, and the way she spoke about it. I see in Lisa, you know, somebody who’s kind of coming from the same place as me, but hasn’t made all the same mistakes as me.” She is one of the rare MPs, he says, who “look after the things that people in your area truly care about, and do anything to save those things.

“It's sad that so few do do that. They play the Westminster thing, and very few truly represent their constituencies.”

Andy Burnham is clearly bruised by his experiences at the top of the Labour Party, and disillusioned with the politics of Westminster. But speculation remains that he could yet return as Labour leader one day. Could he be tempted back to parliament?

“I’m not planning a route back. You know, people sort of think that I am, but I’m not necessarily. And I think the danger is of thinking of politics at Westminster being the be all and end all. I think until that changes, the political culture of this country won't change for the better. So the honest answer to that question is no. You know. I wouldn’t rule it out. But I’m not at this point thinking ‘oooh, general election’ - he mimes counting up the years between elections on his fingers. ‘24? Maybe… 20?’ he trails off. “Genuinely not. You know, I mean this. This may well be, and in fact, it’s likely to be, my last job in politics.”

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman