Patrick O'Flynn

Burnham’s gamble could collapse around him

Burnham's gamble could collapse around him
(Photo by Martin Rickett - Pool/Getty Images)
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If they were to give out awards for best use of an anorak to communicate stroppy defiance then Andy Burnham would be about to break the stranglehold of former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher.

In a city where it rains on more than 150 days a year, it is perhaps unsurprising that the anorak has become the garb of the everyman. And it was surely no accident that Greater Manchester’s Mayor was clad in one as he spoke out on Thursday against Whitehall's plans to put his region into the highest tier of lockdown controls.

After successfully launching his theme on the BBC’s Question Time last week (when he told viewers 'it does feel increasingly to people like we are being treated with contempt in the north of England'), Labour’s Mr Manchester upped the ante for the gathered TV news crews.

'They are willing to sacrifice jobs and businesses here to try and save them elsewhere. Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region and Lancashire are being set up as the canaries in the coal mine for an experimental regional lockdown,' he declared, thereby squeezing a disappeared northern industrial icon into the frame for good measure.

While the terms 'down south' and 'that London' did not pass his lips, they did not need to. Short of donning an enormous papier-mache Frank Sidebottom head for his peroration it is difficult to think what more Mr Burnham could have done to conjure up the idea of heartless southern Tories treading their fancy loafers down on northern windpipes.

In fact, Burnham concluded with a passage worthy of Peterloo, Mike Leigh’s romanticised 2018 film about the brutal putting down of a popular uprising in the middle of Manchester in 1819 (Lord Liverpool was PM back then but don’t let that bother you): 

This is an important moment. Greater Manchester will stand firm. We are fighting back for fairness and for the health of our people in the broadest sense.

As a lockdown sceptic, I’d have been quite prepared to lap all this up had Mr Burnham genuinely been challenging the dismal move back towards suppressing the virus by killing the economy. It might even have suggested a piece about provincial common-sense calling time on Westminster madness.

But, in fact, he was not doing that at all. He’d actually back what he had just characterised as 'a punishing lockdown' so long as it was imposed nationwide.

In those circumstances, then, the downsides he mentioned such as 'certain hardship, job losses, business failures… harm to people’s mental health' would apparently be quite all right. Presumably because southerners would be suffering them too, even in areas like the South West where Covid infections are running at just a fifth of those in his own region.

For this policy — which is of course backed by his party leader, Surrey’s finest Sir Keir Starmer — Mr Burnham relies on apparently having being told by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer that a national lockdown is 'the only thing certain to work'.

In fact, this is sophistry. While few dispute that a national lockdown would indeed suppress the virus, consensus suggests that this would only be for a short while. And nobody disputes that the economic impact would be horrific, leaving central government much less able to fund the kind of ongoing support for struggling households and businesses that Burnham considers essential.

In short, he is playing politics and gambling that enough northern voters will be receptive to the notion of a home counties-orientated administration being careless about their interests to win him significant extra political leverage.

Should he use that leverage to secure more generous financial support for his region during its impending acquaintance with the joys of tier three then it will be a job well done and fair play to him.

But if his real game is simply to hype up a persecution complex in order to advance Labour in the polls nationwide then he will be found out and the substance and authority that eluded him during his Westminster days will remain out of reach. Or as the original angry anorak, Liam Gallagher, once sang: 'As they took his soul they stole his pride. And as he faced the sun he cast no shadow.'