In channelling his city's rage, the mayor has reset his reputation—and posed disruptive questions about the governance of the UKby Tom Clark / November 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
In this, the year of the virus, there have been dramatic news moments aplenty, courtesy of everyone from Prince Charles to Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Until the autumn, however, truly political moments were in short supply: after years of Brexit wrangling and a Christmas election, the pandemic seemed more of a human and a technical story. All this changed abruptly on 15th October on the steps of Manchester Central Library.
At first blush, what unfolded looked like a piece of anti-theatre: an ordinary-looking man in a North Face waterproof with no rostrum or props save for a piece of paper, from which he read a short statement. There was no finger-jabbing and few rhetorical flourishes, as the mayor of a region with a rocketing coronavirus caseload refused to accept tighter restrictions, such as the closure of most pubs and cafés, on the financial terms the government was offering.
And yet there was the unmistakable edge of anger in the hybrid northwestern tones of Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, and to those who knew their history, he was in a resonant spot, yards from the site of the Peterloo massacre. The sharing of the vast sacrifices imposed by Covid-19 was always going to get contentious at some point—“following the science” could not postpone the argument forever—and the man in the mac was catalysing a reckoning.
Burnham was better placed than most to understand the grave public health and political risks of delaying Manchester’s lockdown: his first brush with pandemic preparation came over a decade ago, when he was health secretary during the swine flu scare in 2009. Uniquely among the new breed of city regions, Greater Manchester has powers over the NHS budget, and if ICUs end up overrun and Mancunians are left gasping in hospital corridors, Burnham could be in the firing line. And yet this affable character—who during his younger days was sometimes written off as a shape-shifting careerist—decided to take a defiant stand, refusing to budge over his final red line, concerning an almost rounding-error sum of £5m in the package of relief.
Why? Was it, as his critics in Downing Street say, a reckless and cynical calculation? (Downing Street imposed the regional lockdown by fiat days later.) Was it instead a straightforward consequence of penny-pinching on No 10’s part? Was it the…