It is a Tuesday afternoon in October and Andy Burnham has just got off the phone with Boris Johnson. After two weeks of negotiations over how to deal with Greater Manchester’s soaring Covid rates, talks have collapsed, and as the region’s mayor, it is his job to tell the public why. He leaves his office and walks round the corner to Bridgewater Hall to be greeted with the biggest press pack he has faced in years.
The press conference was sold to me, the Guardian’s North of England editor, as a “select event”, but it is nothing of the kind. I am standing in line behind national reporters, with well-wishers shouting, “Go on, Andy, lad!” as Burnham begins to speak.
I’m not used to having to queue for the mayor. We last met in August when, sick of screens but banned from meeting indoors or in gardens, he suggested a walk around Leigh, the part of Wigan he represented in parliament for 16 years. Back then, it felt like things were getting back to normal; he was delighted when one of his old constituents lent me 50p for my parking, and we walked unremarked past young lads smoking weed by the canal.
But with Covid’s second wave, Burnham, 50, has become box office: dubbed the “king of the north” after a stirring speech in a cagoule on the steps of Manchester’s Central Library, and inspiring a Vogue article headlined, “Suddenly, Inexplicably, We All Fancy Andy Burnham”.
The venue today feels significant. Bridgewater Hall stands opposite Manchester Central, a conference centre requisitioned to become one of the Nightingale hospitals. Perhaps more importantly, it is in full view of the Peterloo memorial, a reminder of the bloody 1819 massacre in which an estimated 18 working-class Mancunians were crushed to death by government-backed yeoman as they peacefully protested for a vote, starting the long battle for universal suffrage.
Much of Burnham’s speech is stuff I’ve heard him say countless times before. There’s a familiar dig at Westminster – those who will suffer most in tier 3 are “people working in pubs, in bookies, driving taxis, people too often forgotten by those in power” – followed by a bit of Mancunian exceptionalism: “This city region has never walked on by, and it never will.” But the numbers are striking. Burnham is saying the government’s final offer of £60m in support falls £5m short of what he’s willing to accept.
Suddenly, Kevin Lee, Burnham’s aide, rushes to show Burnham something on his phone. It’s a text from Lucy Powell, the MP for Manchester Central, who is providing updates from a call she and other local MPs are having with Matt Hancock, the health secretary. They’ve just been told there is now no guarantee that the region will get even the £60m. The only thing assured is £22m, the £8 a head automatically offered to all tier 3 areas for enhanced test and trace and enforcement.
Burnham looks winded. He seems uncharacteristically stuck for words, so Sir Richard Leese, his deputy and the longtime leader of Manchester city council, does the talking. The government plans to “pick off individual councils”, Leese says. They want to break Greater Manchester’s united front, an unlikely coalition of some rightwing libertarian Tory MPs and some of the most leftwing council leaders in Britain.
“It’s a disgrace!” shouts a man in his 60s – a Tory voter, it later turns out. He is part of a swollen crowd who earlier booed Newsnight political editor Nick Watt when he accused the mayor of showboating. “It’s brutal, to be honest, isn’t it?” says Burnham. “This is no way to run the country in a national crisis.”
That night, Boris Johnson gives his own press conference. He refuses to confirm or deny whether the £60m is off the table, a punishment for Mancunian intransigence. Viewed from the north of England, it is not a good look for the former mayor of London who, shortly after becoming prime minister, gave a speech in which he vowed to give more power to the regions. “I know the transformative potential of local, accountable leadership,” Johnson told the Convention of the North in Rotherham last September. This, he said, meant “trusting people to take back control and run things the way that they want to”.
Later that night, I think about Watt’s showboating comment. Burnham clearly enjoys the limelight, and knows how to get a headline – but none of it felt manufactured. Those who rarely leave Westminster made much of his outfit – no tie, black shirt under a navy jacket, Clark Kent specs – suggesting he was trying to look more like an educated football casual than a former cabinet minister. But these days he is more often in that get-up than a suit. And as for wearing cagoules when it isn’t raining? He is a Britpop fan. Everyone knows that Manc frontmen like to rock a waterproof whatever the weather.
Even so, the questions remain: is there more to Burnham’s rocketing profile than the economic survival of Mancunians? The man who (twice) failed to become Labour leader is currently putting more pressure on the government than he ever could on the opposition frontbench. Will he be content with his new role as a de facto leader of northern England – or is this the beginning of a more significant political rebirth?
When I catch up with Burnham on the phone a few days later, he sounds knackered. It has been a completely “bewildering” few weeks, he says. His daughters, Annie, 15, and Rosie, 18, are used to the rumours that their dad wears mascara or dyes his hair (he doesn’t). But the idea of him being a sex symbol went several steps too far. “I just want all that stuff to pass,” he says, hurriedly.
He insists he wasn’t showboating. “I’ve never in any way felt that, in the job I am doing, I am raising my profile,” he says. “In leaving Westminster and the national stage, I always felt I was leaving that side of it behind, and I was happy about that. I thought, I’ll be well known in the region, but not outside it. I lived in the media spotlight for all those years, and I was almost deliberately downgrading my profile.” The Andy Burnham who raged outside the Bridgewater Hall is authentic, he insists. “My mum always says the real me comes out when I am tired and angry… I just thought, what’s the point of my role if this is the way we are treated?”
There seems to be little gap between Burnham’s public and private personas. In all the years I have covered his political career, I have never seen him turned “off”. On our walk in August, he told me how his 20-year-old son Jimmy, now at university in London, complained in the run-up to the 2010 election that driving anywhere together took ages because Burnham was always too courteous to other cars. “I was flashing my lights at someone, saying, ‘You first,’ and he said, ‘Dad, stop election driving.’ The kids roll their eyes if they ever come shopping with me.”
Unlike many MPs, Burnham has never had to fake his attachment to the areas he represents. Coming back north permanently (he still lives in the mining town of Golborne) was always part of the plan, he says. He never made London his main home, “despite being told by so many people in Westminster, ‘You’ve got to base your family down here.’” He says that when he met his wife, Dutch marketeer and brand strategist Marie-France van Heel, he told her: “Don’t stay with me if you want to live in London, because I won’t be doing that.”
Andy Burnham’s job has only existed since May 2017. He can thank George Osborne for it: in 2014, the then-chancellor declared a new dawn of devolution in what came to be known as his “northern powerhouse” speech, delivered at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum. Osborne said he wanted to make the cities of the north “a powerhouse for our economy again – with new transport and science, and powerful city governance”.
I rolled my eyes at the time, 18 months into my tenure in the north. The Guardian was founded in Manchester in 1821, in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre, but I was by then the last reporter in the paper’s original home. Washington DC and New York felt far more important to the national media than Leeds or Newcastle. To some, my job looked like a punishment posting. Before taking it, I had been on track to become a foreign correspondent, having done stints in Berlin and Delhi. Truth be told, it did not feel like a promotion. But I was fed up with living in a one-bedroom flat with no garden, and as a Lancastrian felt strongly that my home region was poorly served by an almost exclusively London-based media.
I didn’t take Osborne’s northern powerhouse idea seriously at first. My spellchecker found the phrase as ridiculous as I did, defaulting to “northern powerhose”. And whatever he says now, Burnham was not an early convert to devolution, either. He was shadow health secretary when Osborne began negotiating a deal with Greater Manchester – one that would see the region entrusted with limited spending and decision-making powers, in return for the imposition of a mayor. It was far from a universally popular idea, particularly among the region’s existing 10 council leaders.
Osborne loved the idea of mayors, believing they had the power to transcend traditional party politics. Burnham was less convinced. He was particularly incensed when Greater Manchester started negotiations to devolve health and social care from Whitehall. “He was genuinely furious,” remembers a colleague: “He kept saying, ‘This isn’t national Labour policy,’ and, ‘This is denationalisation of the National Health Service, and we can’t have it.’”
In 2015, Burnham was the early favourite in the ballot to succeed Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour party. But after many of his supporters decided to lend Jeremy Corbyn their vote, in a somewhat patronising bid to “get the left on the ballot”, Burnham finished a very distant second, winning just 19% of first preference votes to Corbyn’s 59.5%. It had been his second stab at the top job; his 2010 leadership campaign, which vowed to listen to Labour voters’ concerns about immigration, was dismissed as dog-whistle racism. (Not unrelatedly, his former constituency of Leigh is now represented by a Brexiter and a Tory, for the first time in its 135-year-history.)
I followed Burnham around quite a bit on that 2015 leadership campaign. I even met his parents at their bungalow in Culcheth, four miles from his family home. Burnham was late, so his mother, Eileen, offered me a bacon butty, while his older brother, Nick, a headteacher, and their father, Roy, watched cricket in the spare room. I felt immediately at home. The senior Burnhams operate the sort of open house where anyone who knows their three boys, or their eight grandchildren, is immediately offered a brew. Eileen is the boss, with a Judi Dench white crop and pearl earrings; Roy, a retired telecoms engineer, is a little quieter and more scouse, with a full, dark head of hair well into his 70s. When Burnham arrived, he seemed unperturbed to find I had made myself comfy on the sofa.
We already went back a fair way. Burnham first phoned me, out of the blue, in December 2009, when I was a junior reporter in London. He’d noticed I had been writing about international child abduction and wanted to tell me about one of his constituents, Sarah Taylor, whose six-year-old daughter, Nadia, had been taken by her father to Libya. Burnham had just been promoted to health secretary. I was impressed by the lengths to which he had gone to bring Nadia back to Leigh, using his own money to buy a plane ticket to Tripoli to personally plead with Muammar Gaddafi’s government. I put him in my “good egg” basket. Months before that, as Labour’s culture secretary, he’d had the guts to go to Anfield and tell thousands of Liverpool fans that the government accepted there had been an injustice at Hillsborough.
All the same, I wasn’t convinced by his leadership bid. Sitting in his parents’ back room, he hammered away at his theory that the Labour party was too London-centric: Westminster bubble this, Whitehall that… I remember pointing out that, although he was born in Liverpool and went to a state school in the north-west, he had spent almost his entire working life in London-based politics. After graduating from Cambridge, he had started out as a researcher for Tessa Jowell, going on to become a spad (special adviser) for the then culture secretary, Chris Smith. Now, he seemed to be trying too hard to play a typical northern bloke. Asked by Mumsnet that year to name his favourite biscuit, he replied: “I don’t have a sweet tooth and don’t eat biscuits. But give me a beer and chips and gravy any day…” It wasn’t that he was putting it on; he was just over-egging the pudding.
Perhaps his biggest flaw is an overriding need to be liked, which can force him to be too many different things to too many different people. I listen to his weekly Radio Manchester phone-in, and he agrees with almost everyone – though not the chap from Rochdale who suggested it was time for him to resign, because he was no longer “flavour of the month” with people down in “that there London”.
He now positions himself on the left of the party, but as health minister Burnham defended the Labour government’s use of PFIs (private finance initiatives), which have saddled hospitals across Greater Manchester and beyond with crippling loans. But if his views have evolved, so what, shrugs Jamie Reed, the former MP for Copeland in Cumbria, who served in Burnham’s shadow health department: “It’s a pretty old-fashioned view of politics to say that people shouldn’t change their minds.”
Burnham wasn’t focused on the geographic imbalance in government when he was working for Blair and Brown, Reed concedes. But by 2010, when Labour was back in opposition, it was a genuine concern. The pair used to talk about the London-centric nature of British politics, and the cultural divide that had opened up between the Labour party and their traditional voters in rugby league towns like Leigh and Whitehaven, where Reed lives. “There wasn’t a massive amount of interest in the way power was centralised in the UK, in the way that there is now, and Andy was sincere in his criticisms of it,” he says.
Despite these contradictions, Burnham stormed to victory in the inaugural Greater Manchester mayoral elections by promising to end rough sleeping and improve transport, winning 63% of the vote. He immediately signalled his independence from the Labour leadership by shunning a photocall with Corbyn that night, preferring to celebrate with his family. An army of young Corbynistas had been summoned for the picture, and waited awkwardly for half an hour until someone noticed that Burnham’s team had posted a photo on Twitter of him getting stuck into some bubbly.
While Corbyn battled with his parliamentary party and a hostile media, Burnham forged his own path. Three years into the job, he had almost halved rough sleeping in the area, encouraging local celebrities such as Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany to dig deep into their own pockets. He has led by example, donating 15% of his own £110,000 salary to his homelessness fund each year, and going out regularly at dawn to help count the number of people asleep on the streets.
Burnham treats the job like a ministerial position, spending all day in meetings and taking a dispatch box home to work late into the night. If he has an evening off, he goes to gigs (his last was local heroes the Courteeners in February). He says he always comes away better informed. “I pick up straws in the wind when I’m at a gig, and someone comes over and says, ‘Know what, have you not thought about X?’ The style of politics I have more and more enjoyed is just being out and about, and letting people come and chat to me, rather than the Westminster thing.”
David Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary, has been a Burnham supporter from the start, plucking him from the 2001 parliamentary intake to become his private secretary, and chipping in to fund both his leadership bids. “I thought he had incredible potential. He thinks deeply and agonises over whether he’s really representing the people and the causes he cares about,” Blunkett explains. And so what if he used to be a Westminster animal? “The real test is whether you have lost touch with your roots. Do people feel you belong to them, and they belong to you?”
After his government standoff, Burnham was widely feted as a hero in Manchester, with pubs putting up signs to offer him free pints before they were forced to close, and one selling Burnham burgers (multiple tiers of fillings). I sometimes wondered what Keir Starmer made of it all, plugging away in the Commons in his forensic way while Burnham hogged the spotlight.
Burnham says the two are friends, but stresses, “I don’t toe a line. I do what I think is right for Greater Manchester.” On our summer walk, he admitted he had voted Starmer for the leadership, rather than Lisa Nandy, his fellow Wigan MP. “Keir is a brilliant man. The fact he was a former DPP [director of public prosecutions], and came to work in my shadow Home Office team with no airs and graces says a lot about Keir Starmer,” he says. It probably suits Starmer to have Burnham leading from the heart, while he leads from the head. The two complement each other, often saying the same thing but in very different ways.
Before the pandemic hit, I had started working on a project in Leigh. I wanted to find out why voters had turned their backs on Labour since Burnham relinquished the seat in 2017, and what it would take for the party to win it back. The new Tory voters I met still spoke fondly of Burnham, whether he had visited their school or hospital, or joined in at the bingo. They just hated Corbyn for a whole cocktail of reasons.
The Leithers seemed to be enjoying the attention, and it felt good for me, too, having a reporting patch that was now of national interest. This had been building for a few years, after the Brexit result awoke a flurry of interest in the “left-behind areas” of the north and east. When someone came up with the idea of referring to the longtime Labour seats facing Tory challengers as a semi-mythical “red wall”, I started to get calls from the BBC asking me to tell them how things looked “from the north”. I did my best not to sound like a fraud as I gave a two-minute soundbite on behalf of 14 million people.
Ultimately, though, political journalism still sees everything through a Westminster lens. For many with a lobby pass, the big question is not how we devolve more power to mayors, and allow cities and regions to control their own destinies, but whether Burnham would ever go back to Westminster and try to become the first prime minister with a northern accent since Huddersfield’s Harold Wilson in the 1970s. After all, the Leigh constituency party has not yet chosen its candidate for the next general election. Burnham insists he doesn’t fancy it, telling Radio Manchester after the Bridgewater Hall standoff that he thought being mayor of Greater Manchester would probably be his “last job in politics”. But on our walk in Leigh two months earlier, I had asked him if he still wanted to be prime minister, and he said: “There’s no point me saying no, because I have tried to lead the Labour party in the past, and therefore I wanted to be prime minister.”
Blunkett thinks Burnham has moved on from Westminster, and that his next role is to “unite the north”, and force Labour to think seriously about redistributing power. Burnham agrees. He is unrepentant about the stand he took, noting that the government has since promised everything he asked for, and more. Two days after the talks collapsed, Rishi Sunak announced he would, after all, be compensating businesses in Greater Manchester and other parts of the north that had suffered since local lockdowns were enforced. And 11 days later, Johnson declared a month-long national lockdown, together with a promise to extend furlough at 80% of wages, as Burnham had demanded.
For the mayor, now is the time for the government to come good on its commitment to “level up” – the phrase used by Johnson in his rebranding of Osborne’s northern powerhouse. “This is the moment really to see: is devolution real or is it not? If we are going to have a form of devolution where everyone is having to bite their tongue, that isn’t devolution, is it? That’s everyone bowing down before Westminster, and being grateful for whatever they give us… The frustrations felt by people outside London really needed to be vocalised by somebody, and I just don’t think MPs will ever be those people.”
Will he continue to be the lightning conductor for resentments that seem likely to play out for years to come? He must be the likeliest contender. The way this government has treated my part of the world during this crisis will not be quickly forgotten. The north remembers.