The battle between Boris Johnson and Andy Burnham shows the need for more devolution across the UK

Coronavirus has shone a searchlight on the normally hidden cracks in the UK’s over-centralised system

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 21 October 2020 14:32
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Boris Johnson unable to explain how to exit tier 3 lockdowns

It was World King (which Boris Johnson wanted to be as a child) 1, King of the North (Andy Burnham) 0 (after extra time). Johnson might have won his game of poker with the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, but may well come to rue the day he imposed tier 3 coronavirus restrictions on the region.  

Victory might prove pyrrhic. The risk is that voters in the north no longer think Johnson is “on our side”. Labour, which needs to regain the former “red wall” painted blue by the Conservatives in last December’s election, senses this is a big moment and a huge opportunity. It might well be right.  

The Tories’ crude attempt to portray Burnham as the bad guy won’t wash. A letter from six local Tory MPs accusing him of putting his “ego” before local people had the government’s fingerprints all over it. More important was the private view of some other Tory MPs. As one told me: “The danger is that Boris loses the north’s trust and never gets it back.” This matters: Johnson will need to be King of the North to retain power at the next election.

Burnham is an unlikely bogey man. Previous battles between Tory ministers and local government were with left-wing council leaders like Derek Hatton in Liverpool and Ken Livingstone in London whose demands, like refusing to balance their books, were opposed by some in their own party. Burnham has been reasonable throughout this crisis; earlier, he was under fire from some Labour colleagues for cooperating too closely with the Tory enemy.

Ministers will point to today’s agreement with South Yorkshire on financial support and joining tier 3. They insist their £60m offer to Greater Manchester – Burnham wanted £65m – is still on the table. In their customary usual “divide and rule” strategy, they urge the region’s 10 councils to apply for it, an attempt to bypass Burnham. Ministers insist it would have been unfair on other areas to give Greater Manchester a “preferential arrangement”. What matters is not how this plays in Tory-supporting newspapers produced in London but in the north. Voters there will likely see this big picture: Burnham stood up for us and Johnson didn’t. The toxic “same old Tories” label, passed down the generations since the Thatcher era, might stick.

Johnson loves to be loved but what Burnham called his “brutal tactics” give the opposite impression. Ministers now threaten to take direct control of cash-starved Transport for London unless Sadiq Khan, the capital’s Labour mayor, agrees to raise taxes, bus and Tube fares, expand the congestion charge zone and reduce concessionary travel for the old and young.  

It was Johnson who played the populist brilliantly last December. Now the boot is on the other foot. Burnham is a local populist. Khan plays the same card. Nicola Sturgeon, like Johnson, offers nationalist populism. These leaders enjoy limited power with limited responsibility, and blame the government, usually for a lack of money, when things go wrong. Johnson knows all about the blame game; he played it for years with Brussels and is now playing it (again) in the stalled EU trade deal talks.

Coronavirus has shone a searchlight on the normally hidden cracks in the UK’s over-centralised system and piecemeal devolution settlement. Public health was never seen as an important issue; many voters probably didn’t know that such power resided in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. They certainly know now. England is the odd one out as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland bring in their own temporary shutdowns. Ministers privately acknowledge they need to “build bridges with the DAs” (devolved administrations) and hold more regular dialogue.

In England, a top-down government has imposed restrictions based on undisclosed data analysed in London. The dispute with Greater Manchester showed the need for “buy-in” and local ownership. A new settlement is needed; the issue is no longer merely one for constitutional nerds.

The Tory manifesto promised “full devolution across England” and to build on the metro mayors model in a shake-up of local government. Ministers might be less keen on it now. Tory district councillors, whose bodies would disappear and hand power to county level, do not want to be turkeys who vote for Christmas. A white paper is due shortly, but ministers might get cold feet.

There’s talk in Whitehall of a reset. But despite ministers’ rhetoric about decentralising, they are reluctant to devolve power. What they call a “power surge” of functions returning to the UK after Brexit is seen as a Westminster “power grab" in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

The right way forward: more powers, including a greater ability to raise taxes, for the devolved administrations and England’s metro mayors. They would then enjoy real power and responsibility. It would answer “the English question”. And it might just stop Scotland leaving the UK.

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