Boris Johnson would be smart to devolve more power to Burnham and other big-city mayors. They’re just the scapegoats he needs

Giving more power, and thus more responsibility, to the fractious mayoralties, could help a really devious government to turn its attention to keeping them accountable

James Moore
Wednesday 21 October 2020 13:19
Boris Johnson unable to explain how to exit tier 3 lockdowns

Andy Burnham has become a far more potent figure from Manchester than he ever was in Westminster.  

The prime minister’s vast reservoir of spite in the face of Burnham standing his ground for his city means it is now locked down with what amounts to tuppence ha’penny of support.  

But that’s on Boris Johnson, not Burnham. The prime minister has once again tried to play the strongman only to end up wounding himself in the process. And others too.  

Burnham may have the last laugh.  

Before the pandemic, Johnson was poised to press ahead with plans to torch the already limited checks and balances constraining his misrule and to burn the national institutions Conservatives used to claim to cherish. The courts, the civil service, what passes this country’s constitution, the BBC, voting rights, all were, and likely still are, in his firing line. Take a look at the Tory manifesto if you can bear it.  

But the pandemic has allowed the north’s mayors to emerge as new counterweights to what my colleague Sean O’Grady has referred to as an elected dictatorship.  

It’s turned Burnham into Luke Skywalker at the head of a surprisingly effective rebel alliance, wielding his lightsaber through the effective use of the bully pulpit.  

He’s going to use it again and again, and it’s going to hurt.  

This has raised the question of what happens to devolution now. “You can forget about any more of that” may be the view from Downing Street.  

A sharper prime minister would chart the opposite course.  

If Johnson devolved more power to the likes of Burnham in Manchester and the other big-city mayors, they would also have to accept more responsibilities and could be made to carry the can for any failings in the discharge of them.  

A devious minded government (as the smarter ones are) would be able to drop them in it where the lines of responsibility are blurry. Governments like to have someone to pass the blame on to. It’s why quangos are so popular. When Britain was in the EU, ministers regularly handed the blame for problems that were made in London off to Brussels. The government’s failure to secure the trade deal it promised looks set to be the last outing for that one.  

Having decided to give more power, and thus more responsibility, to the fractious mayoralties, a really devious government would then turn its attention to keeping them accountable.  

The rot in Westminster is at least plain for all to see. The cronyism; contracts awarded to their companies – it’s all there.  

It’s reported on, discussed, debated, challenged, not always as effectively as it should be, but the lights are at least on and there are multiple outlets dedicated to keeping that way. Sometimes people even pay attention.  

Is the same true of the regions? Britain’s northern cities have newspapers, some very good, but they’ve fallen prey to the malign trends affecting the media industry.  

They were running with less staff and less resources before the pandemic roared in.  

Manchester is also blessed with the BBC’s northern HQ, but auntie is also under pressure.

Improving the checks on powerful mayors by bolstering local media is one area where the public’s and the government’s interests could be said to be in lockstep.  

If it takes public funds that could maybe be bid for to accomplish this, then so be it. But maybe the tech giants could be importuned to contribute to the pot. They’re currently under intense pressure at the moment so now would be a good time to extract a few concessions.  

Britain’s local media needs a shot in the arm. If it got that, the net result would be better governance. It's what you get when you shine a bright enough light.  

If that doesn’t convince a political class with no apparent appetite for standards, the sharper tacks in the Westminster tin ought to be able to work out the more cynical value.  

Write it out 100 times: If someone’s there to highlight the failings of others, it has the potential to detract attention from your own. If they’re your opponents (as the northern mayors mostly are), so much the better.

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