Manchester’s Andy Burnham: King of the North or egotistical troublemaker?

Mayor has been thorn in side of UK government but praised as voice of working classes

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM – OCTOBER 20: Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham (left) with leader of Manchester City Council Sir Richard showing him the news from London when the Tier 3 measures will come into force on October 20, 2020 in Manchester, England. Talks between the Housing and Communities Minister, Robert Jenrick, and the Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, collapsed today after they failed to agree a financial package to help Mancunians whose jobs are threatened by a Tier Three lockdown.  (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

When he stood alongside local leaders and hit out at the lack of the support for the region, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham quickly became a cult hero but also an easy target for his detractors in government.

His emotional plea for more money to support the lowest paid and freelancers led Mr Burnham to be declared the "King of the North", in a reference to TV series Game of Thrones.

He had been seeking a financial package that would help those unable to work if the region was put into an enhanced lockdown known as Tier 3.

Mr Burnham was health minister from 2009-2010 in the most recent Labour government.

But at 2pm on Tuesday the government walked away from negotiations after refusing to meet his demands.

Hours later, despite the protests from Manchester’s local leaders, the government announced it would impose further restrictions on the region.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Manchester would receive £60 million ($77.7m)  in support, £5m less than local officials had asked for.

An MP for the constituency of Leigh, Greater Manchester, from 2001 to 2017, Mr Burnham took on his mayoral role three years ago.

In his victory speech he said it was new era for politics in the UK, which had "been too London-centric for too long".

Mr Burnham contested the Labour Party leadership in 2015 but came a distant second to Jeremy Corbyn, who vacated the role this year after a disastrous general election last December.

Mr Corbyn appointed Mr Burnham as his home affairs spokesman in September 2015, but he stepped down a year later to focus on his run for the Manchester office.

He has warned that Greater Manchester will face increased poverty, homelessness and hardship as winter looms because of the Covid-19 restrictions.

Mr Burnham appeared to find out the details of the lockdown the government would enforce, including when it would start, in the middle of his speech outside the town hall on Tuesday as he read messages sent to the phones of council leaders.

His announcement to the small crowd that the government would offer Greater Manchester only £22m was described as “disgraceful” by the mayor and condemned by the assembled audience.

Mr Burnham has since been accused of playing to the crowd, with Local Government Minister Robert Jenrick insisting he was told of the details at 2pm on Tuesday and not two hours later as he gave his speech.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has previously hit out at Mr Burnham, accusing him of trying to “hold the government over a barrel” by resisting tougher restrictions.

And Health Minister Matt Hancock reportedly spent five minutes on Tuesday having a go at the Manchester mayor over the phone when they should have been discussing the region's safety.

But supporters of Mr Burnham have rallied behind him as the standoff with Manchester begins to symbolise the wider issue of a Conservative government often accused of missteps in its approach to the pandemic.

“Absolutely bizarre from the government," said Lisa Nandy, Labour’s foreign policy spokeswoman.

"From day one there’s been an attack on the Labour Party and particularly on Andy Burnham, who ministers seem weirdly obsessed by in all of this."

Ms Nandy, who represents the Wigan constituency in Greater Manchester, said some Conservative MPs and council leaders were also criticising the government’s handling of the matter.

Mr Johnson said the restrictions were necessary to protect lives as Covid-19 cases continued to rise in the UK.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer is among those criticising the government's handling of the pandemic, accusing it of "treating millions of people with contempt".

Mr Starmer has called for a nationwide two or three-week lockdown to stem the flow of cases.

“It’s corrosive to public trust to pit region against region, mayor against mayor, council against council, asking them to trade away their businesses and jobs," he told Parliament on Wednesday.

Mr Johnson has rejected the idea of a nationwide lockdown, saying it would "involve closing schools, it'd involve shuttering businesses, with all the psychological, emotional damage that a lockdown of that kind brings".

Under the top tier of restrictions, pubs and bars not serving meals have to close, households cannot mix indoors or in most outdoor settings, and people are strongly advised not to travel in or out of the area.

South Yorkshire will enter into a Tier-3 lockdown on Saturday as tighter restrictions spread across northern England.

Official figures released on Tuesday showed that another 241 people who tested positive for coronavirus died in hospitals across the UK, with 21,331 new cases reported over the previous 24 hours.

That brings the total confirmed deaths nationwide to 43,967.