Why does ‘King of the North’ Andy Burnham matter?

Why does ‘King of the North’ Andy Burnham matter?

You’ll likely of heard of the fury stirred up by today’s mutiny, with high-profile Labour MP, Mayor of Greater Manchester and ‘King of the North’, Andy Burnham, refusing to implement Tier 3 restrictions on his home city. Why is he doing it? Well, because he’s probably gauged that  a second lockdown won’t be popular in his area. But how is he justifying it, and why should we care?

Well the nigh-on instinctive response are economic justifications. Between a lack of clarity on how long restrictions will be in place; unable to plan for unexpected overheads; fluctuating degrees of financial support from the government (et al.) are all contributing to the sense that another wave of restrictions might be too great a burden for many.

Not only are residents worried about their jobs, but the flip-flop on lockdown policy, and the Chancellor’s tightening purse strings, are causing local businesses to ask questions about their long-term viability. Job losses, and business closures, aren’t just harmful for the economy, but for the fabric of a community.

A second reason, that is not discussed enough, is good will turning into apathy. While many would support lockdown in spirit, even at a cost to themselves, there just doesn’t seem to be a big pay-off in sight. Sure, we might know the lockdown protects lives, but its ultimate goal is to buy time – specifically, time for a vaccine to be developed.

Between Donald Trump’s half-witted and expedient ramblings about a vaccine being ready by November, and delays to Astra Zenica’s vaccine trials, there appears to have been a real lack of good news on the vaccine front. While it might seem like a somewhat abstract discussion, not having an end in sight, and a clear goal to work towards, can make extremely tedious undergoings – like lockdown – unpleasant enough that we just give up the ghost.

Third, and Burnham will have been acutely aware of this from the get-go: the North-South divide narrative has been a potent weapon since the 1980s. With Boris Johnson asking cities in Northern England to be the forerunners in implementing the most stringent Tier of lockdown restrictions, Burnham decided it was time to light the political touch-paper.

Lamenting the ‘one rule for the South and another for the North’, the Mayor of Greater Manchester has challenged the PM’s platform as the champion of ‘regular’ people. And, true or not – given that restrictions are now being implemented in London – framing Boris as an out-of-touch Southerner, is the last thing the PM needs, amid questions being asked about gross overpayments to Test and Trace operators.

What is so significant about these recent breakthroughs, though, is that Burnham positioning himself as – or merely being crowned – the ‘King of the North’, allows him to test Johnson’s already-shaky working class support.

Crucially, it might challenge Boris‘ status in the ‘Red Wall’ seats that saw him win so decisively in 2019. To regain the favour of Northern cities such as Manchester, the PM will either have the unenviable task of convincing them his way of doing things is better than Burnham’s, or conceding, which would likely spark further dissent around the country.