John Humphrys - ​Johnson versus Burnham : Who Should Run England’s Regions?

October 21, 2020, 4:22 PM UTC

The confrontation lasting several days between Boris Johnson and Andy Burnham produced a most unusual spectacle: a British prime minister forced to stand eyeball to eyeball with a ‘mere’ city mayor. The argument between them may ultimately have narrowed into a spat over the small change of five million quid but behind it lay a much bigger question: who should rule the regions of England, central government in Whitehall and Westminster, or politicians elected locally in the regions themselves? It’s a question that remains unresolved. What’s the answer?

The row was sparked by the growing rate of Covid infection in the Greater Manchester region, of which Mr Burnham is the elected mayor. Following the Prime Minister’s recent introduction of a new, national ‘tier’ system for controlling the spread of the pandemic, in which restrictions on personal and business activity are tailored to the levels of infection in specific areas, Mr Johnson wanted to put Greater Manchester into Tier Three, the most severely restrictive tier.

But Mr Burnham had other ideas. He argued that Greater Manchester had already been subject to tighter restrictions than many other parts of the the country even prior to the new system. He said those restrictions had not worked well enough to justify closing down yet more of the Manchester economy with all that that would entail for Manchester’s voters. And he claimed that what the country needed was what his Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, was advocating – a brief national lockdown, the so-called ‘circuit-breaker’, affecting everyone in the country and not just his own long-suffering Mancunians. At the very least, said Mr Burnham, if the Prime Minister was determined to impose Tier Three on Greater Manchester, the least he could do was cough up the money needed to compensate those in his region who would be adversely affected. Hence the haggle over money. Negotiations, such as they were, foundered on a gap of five million pounds. The mayor refused to accept the Prime Minister’s final offer and so Mr Johnson went ahead and imposed Tier Three anyway.

The Prime Minister had argued that granting the extra money, however small it might seem, would be unfair to those other regions which had already agreed to Tier Three status – Lancashire, and the Liverpool region, whose mayor claims he was strong-armed into agreement. Mr Johnson also feared that granting Mr Burnham what he wanted would serve only to encourage other regional mayors to follow the Manchester mayor’s lead and hold out for more and more money. After   the talks had broken down another region, South Yorkshire, agreed to join Tier Three on terms dictated by London, so seemingly justifying the Prime Minister’s tough stance.

But the way Mr Burnham stood up to London has attracted widespread support right across the political spectrum, with even Conservative MPs in the region urging him on. It’s not just over the money that the mayor has found himself enjoying the support of those who are usually his political opponents. There seems to be a consensus in the north that central government simply doesn’t understand what goes on ‘up north’, that it treats the region heavy-handedly, and is intent simply on imposing its will without bothering meaningfully to consult let alone negotiate. Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary and MP for Wigan, one of Greater Manchester’s boroughs, said: ‘I grew up under Thatcher but I’ve honestly never seen anything like this.’ Mr Burnham has become something of a David to Mr Johnson’s Goliath and his claim that London is ‘grinding people down’ and ‘playing poker with people’s lives’ seems to be resonating across the region.

At the root of all this is an unresolved, age-old constitutional and political issue that can be summed up in the question: ‘Who should decide what, where?’

Way back in time, when central government was less of an all-embracing Leviathan, local government had lots of power and its mayors and councils mattered. Many of its most impressive politicians first made their names in local government and then went on to become major players in national affairs. Joseph Chamberlain, for example, was a dynamic mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s before becoming perhaps the dominant figure in national politics in the last two decades of the century.

But gradually local government started to get its wings clipped, never more radically than under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Mrs Thatcher became increasingly worried by what she saw as the spendthrift and ideological behaviour of left-wing Labour councils and so decided to cut them off at the knees, transferring responsibilities from councils to central government and severely curtailing the power of local government to raise its own revenues. Over time, it became a poor shadow of its old, confident self, dependent on Whitehall for almost everything and reduced simply to doing London’s bidding. In the years of financial austerity under George Osborne, local government took the brunt of the cuts.

Inevitably, a reaction set in against what was seen as the over-centralisation of government in Britain, most notably in Scotland and Wales which voted to set up their own governments with their own devolved powers. The main problem has remained England. Most observers believe England is too big a force within the United Kingdom for it to have its own parliament to match the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. So alternative ways of reducing central government’s grip on English localities have been attempted.

The last Labour government wanted to break up the country into a series of regional governments with defined devolved powers. It experimented by first proposing a north-east regional government and then putting that  to a referendum. But it was defeated. A certain Dominic Cummings was heavily involved in fighting against the plan. More progress was made with an old idea pioneered by the former Tory deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine, who advocated directly-elected regional mayors with the powers and (he hoped) dynamism to take a region by the scruff of its neck and assume control of its own destiny.

Step forward Mr Burnham. What has remained not fully resolved, however, is what the Burnhams of the new world of city mayors should gain control over, and what powers the ever-apprehensive Whitehall should retain.

Few deny that central government should keep its hands exclusively on some issues such as national defence. And almost everyone acknowledges that when the country as a whole is faced with a national crisis, such as the Covid pandemic, central government should have reserve powers to impose nationwide measures. The tricky issue is what powers over regions central government should have when it is not seeking to apply them right across the board.

That is what the spat between Mr Johnson and Mr Burnham boiled down to. Mr Burnham has no objection in principle to the Prime Minister imposing national measures. Indeed, that’s exactly what he’s been urging Mr Johnson to do: impose a circuit-breaker across the whole country to halt the quickening spread of the virus. But the Prime Minister does not want to do this because of what he sees as the unnecessary economic damage it would inflict on areas of the country where infection rates are not high enough to require it. That view was endorsed on Tuesday by the deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan Van-Tam.

So Mr Johnson is determined, if he can, to limit the imposition of new restrictive measures to the areas where the spreading infection is worst. He argues that London must retain and exercise the power to impose such purely regional measures; Mr Burnham (and others) say that measures that apply only locally should be decided locally because local people and the local mayors they elect are best placed to make the judgements about whether and when such measures should be implemented.

This stand-off about who should take such decisions goes way beyond Covid, of course. Advocates of powerful regional mayors, like Lord Heseltine, argue that much greater powers over a wide field should be devolved from Whitehall to such mayors, including powers to raise more of their own revenue and to run the affairs of their region as local people want rather than as London tells them they should want. Such a burgeoning of local power would reinvigorate local democracy, it’s argued, and attract able politicians into local rather than national politics. It has been claimed, for example, that one of the reasons why both the Conservative and Labour parties have been reduced to shadows of their former selves in Scotland (by the SNP) is that their most able politicians regarded Edinburgh as too parochial and are drawn instead to the bright spotlights of Westminster. Regional mayors need extensive powers, it’s argued, if we want to foster new Joe Chamberlains.

Opponents of this view say it would simply introduce chaos. Different regions would go down  different routes on basic issues like health and education and England would soon be reduced to a ‘postcode lottery’ country where the services available would no longer be to a national standard but depend on the vagaries of the different regions. Borders between them would be constant sources of tension. That, they say, has already been the case since Covid reared its ugly head. Why would anyone want to multiply such sources of division many times over, across English regions, opponents ask.

So the tussle between Mr Johnson and Mr Burnham was over more than five million pounds. It was about how we should run the country. What’s your view? Should central government continue to hold sway even over issues that affect only parts but not the whole of the country? Or should the regions be allowed to do their own thing?

Let us know what you think.