Andy Burnham: former New Labour high flyer cast as 'king of the north'

Archie Bland
·7-min read

Andy Burnham barely had his headphones on in time for Dave from Rochdale to put a flea in his ear. “Good afternoon, Andy,” the first caller to the BBC Radio Manchester phone-in said, before observing that Burnham was “not flavour of the month” in London. “Basically,” he said, “should you consider resigning?”

Burnham thought not, and Janet from Bolton agreed. “Hello Andy,” she said. “You’ve done everything you possibly can. How are you feeling in yourself?”

“Completely knackered,” Burnham replied, and even his greatest critics would understand why. Over the past fortnight, the mayor of Greater Manchester – who since taking office has had to deal with a terrorist attack, an austerity-driven funding crunch, and the alarming sight of his former seat of Leigh being taken by a Tory for the first time – has found himself at the centre of a ferocious battle over central government funding as the region enters tier 3 coronavirus restrictions.

By the end of negotiations, the mayor was asking for £65m, the government offering £60m; then, at least in the Burnham camp’s telling, the government pulled the plug. During a press conference on the steps of the Bridgewater Hall, Burnham accused Boris Johnson of “playing poker with people’s lives”, and broke off when shown an email setting out funding of just £22m to call the move “brutal” and “frankly disgraceful”.

One journalist called him a “showboat”, and Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed he was “cheap and disagreeable”. But if the crowd that gathered and cheered as he spoke was any measure, Mancunians disagreed. Eventually, the £60m was found, and while nobody would say Burnham had triumphed, nobody could deny he had been heard.

If his opponents view him as an opportunist, Burnham’s advocates suggest the coronavirus crisis and accompanying sense of an English divide have established him as exactly the voice that the north of England – not just Greater Manchester – needs.

“The role suits Andy, no question – he has the experience, the reputation, the popular standing to make it his own,” said Lucy Powell, the Labour MP for Manchester Central. “Without him in that job, I’m not sure it would have cut through in the same way.”

By all accounts, Burnham is in his element, conducting endless Zoom meetings and media interviews from his son’s attic bedroom and making the hour-long bike ride into Manchester once a week to work in an almost deserted office.

In a febrile political climate he has largely maintained unity among the council leaders and local MPs whose backing he needs, even the Conservatives. One person present in a meeting of council leaders considering their response to the government’s latest offer recalls the Tory leader of Bolton council, David Greenhalgh, summarising the mood of the room by saying: “What a clusterfuck.”

Greenhalgh ultimately agreed to negotiate a separate deal for Bolton. But by and large, even those who are not instinctively aligned with Burnham have viewed his approach as an effective one.

“His attempts to paint himself as the northern champion, sometimes it can ring a bit hollow and seem like PR,” said James Schneider, a former director of strategic communications for Jeremy Corbyn. “And sometimes it can lead him to have much more thoughtful, interesting, surprising politics than the rest of his part of the party. At the moment, it’s been pretty much pitch perfect.”

A search for articles featuring Burnham’s name and “king of the north” in the last week throws up 21 results, and only three mention his eyelashes. These days, a ship that seemed to have sailed has crept back on to the horizon: again and again, he is being asked whether he might ultimately like to be prime minister.

In his early New Labour days, such questions seemed unlikely. As a special adviser in the Departmentfor Culture, Media and Sport and centre-forward for the “Demon Eyes” football team, he was viewed as an effective operator, but with the Milibands, Ed Balls and James Purnell around, he was never the golden boy.

Burnham is applauded after a speech at the Labour party conference in Manchester in 2008
Burnham is applauded after a speech at the Labour party conference in Manchester in 2008. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“He was a very nice guy with a good brain, and he had more Labour authenticity than a lot of the posh southerners,” said Tim Allan, a Demon Eyes teammate and former adviser to Tony Blair who went on to found the PR agency Portland. “You would have said he would have stayed around, being involved, but not that he would have gone on to run Greater Manchester. But a lot of the more obvious superstars of that era just aren’t on the stage any more.”

Burnham was smart, ambitious, and perhaps the victim of his own success. Chris Smith, his boss at DCMS, views his former protege as having done “an extraordinary job” in the last fortnight “with real passion and authority”. But, he suggests, his rapid rise through the ranks left him straitjacketed.

“It was perhaps to his disadvantage that his talent saw him promoted so soon,” Smith said. “I think one of his mistakes for a time was not allowing the passion that we’ve seen in the last few days to come through. He felt he had to be the identikit politician, always looking over his shoulder.”

If the nadir of his orthodoxy was what Schneider called a “very stupid rightwing campaign” during his second Labour leadership bid in 2015, in which he missed the mood of the membership so colossally that he launched it at Ernst & Young with a promise that “the entrepreneur will be as much our hero as the nurse”, it was also a blessing in disguise. (A source close to Burnham said that the recollection “still pierces my heart”.)

Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, and Andy Burnham at the end of the final leadership debate in 2015
From left, Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, and Andy Burnham at the end of the final leadership debate in 2015. Photograph: Scott Heppell/AP

“I was trying to climb the pole, wasn’t I, in my early years in politics,” Burnham told GQ last year. “I was. I wanted to ‘get on’. It was later that I started to reevaluate a lot of things.”

The transition to the mayoralty was, perhaps, as pragmatic as it was idealistic. “One of Andy’s gifts is to convince himself that the best thing for him also happens to be the right thing to do,” said a member of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet.

But Margaret Aspinall, the Hillsborough campaigner who became friends with Burnham through his crucial work on that cause, gives that view short shrift. “He is absolutely true to his convictions,” she said. “A lot of politicians, they give you the tea and sympathy and then they slam the door in your face. He fought for us.”

If that pugilism has come to national attention in the last fortnight, it has been a righteous feature of Burnham’s political style for some time. “I think we’ve lost the art of anger,” he said in that GQ interview. “I only found my anger late in my parliamentary career.”

Thus freed to speak for himself and for his region, would he really give it up for another shot at Westminster? Like Johnson when he was London mayor, he has it both ways, telling interviewers that he expects his current role to be “my last job in politics” but that he “wouldn’t rule it out” .

One current Labour frontbencher views the equivocation as mere reflex. “I suspect he doesn’t have serious ambitions to lead the party any more, and of course that’s hugely liberating,” he said. “He’s not calculating, he’s just being, and that’s why it’s working. It’s been a long time since the north has had such a powerful voice.”