Shadow cabinet frustration at Andy Burnham’s high-profile presence at the Labour conference has burst into the open, with accusations that the Greater Manchester mayor is “on manoeuvres” in the case of a leadership race.
One shadow minister told The Independent that there was resentment at the way Mr Burnham had left Westminster to build a personal fiefdom in the north, rather than joining in the work of wresting the national party back from the left.
Any attempt to secure a swift return to the Commons – essential if he was to stand for leader – would not necessarily be met with the offer of a safe seat, one suggested.
“If he thinks he can swan off to Manchester and leave everybody else to do the s*** work and then come back like a conquering hero, he can think again,” said the shadow minister. “He has been elected mayor, he should see out his term.”
Speculation is building over Mr Burnham’s leadership ambitions, with the Greater Manchester mayor, who has not ruled out an attempt to return to Westminster after the next election, set to appear at no fewer than 11 fringe events during Labour’s annual conference.
A second shadow cabinet minister told The Independent that the Labour membership did not like Mr Burnham’s willingness to criticise Sir Keir Starmer in public.
“Members don’t like him having a go at Starmer. They think it’s rude. Andy has always lacked judgement, and I think this is another example. I don’t know that he would win a leadership contest anyway, when you look at his last two tries.”
Last night, in an interview with BBC News, the former cabinet minister took a swipe at Sir Keir Starmer for focusing on internal battles over Labour’s rulebook, rather than taking the fight to the Conservatives, echoing a similar criticism made by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Saturday.
Speaking at an event hosted by the New Statesman, Mr Burnham piled further pressure on the Labour leadership, stressing that Labour needed to set out its “stall”on a string of key issues such as social care, and claimed the party remained too “Londoncentric”.
While he said Labour was now in a better position to govern the country since party delegates last gathered in Brighton for conference two years ago, Mr Burnham said: “It’s got a lot of work to do. A lot of work to do.”
Recalling his own frustrations as a shadow minister under Ed Miliband’s leadership of the party trying to push reform of social care, he added: “I remember the arguments: set it out nearer the election.
“I just don’t think the world works like that any more,” he went on. “If the government comes forward and puts an unfair social care policy on the table, which they did a couple of weeks ago, your criticisms won’t be heard unless you say ‘here’s what we will do’.
“You can set a policy out on everything, I understand that, but on the big things that are the issues – levelling up, social care and all these things, you have to set out your stall.
“I say this as wanting to see everyone, Keir and all the shadow cabinet succeed. I think you have to start setting out your stall if you’re to get people to start listening and engaging.”
Elsewhere, Mr Burnham revealed he will present Boris Johnson with a “levelling up” deal for Greater Manchester, as he praised Michael Gove’s appointment to oversee the key government brief as “good news”.
With ministers set to descend on the northern city for the Conservative Party conference next week, Mr Burnham said he would lobby ministers to support a package including the establishment of a “London-style” transport system.
He stressed there was an “outrageous” inequality between transport costs in the capital and elsewhere and would not wait while the prime minister struggled to define his levelling-up election slogan.
“When the government comes to Manchester next week, I will put on the table a constructive proposal – a levelling-up deal – that has a London-style public transport system at its heart,” Mr Burnham said.
He also suggested Mr Johnson signing a deal would make political sense, with the government able to blame him if he failed to deliver, or take credit if a “very visible sign of levelling-up” emerges in the north of England.
Following the appointment of Mr Gove to the position of communities secretary during the reshuffle – rebranding the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local government the Department for Levelling Up – the mayor told the event Mr Gove was “good news” for levelling up.
“I was his shadow when he was education secretary, and honestly we clashed over pretty much all of that agenda he brought in in 2011, but the thing about Michael Gove is at least he does things, he brings energy to what he does,” he said.
Mr Burnham added: “You may disagree with him, but he acts as a minister and he creates an agenda and then implements it.
“I’ve observed so many in the current government who aren’t doing that, their just minding the shop. Gove doesn’t do that. I think, I hope, when I put this levelling-up deal to him, I’m hoping he will embrace it.”
In a nod to Mr Gove’s recent raving at an Aberdeen nightclub, Mr Burnham later joked he was keen to impress the new communities secretary when he arrives in Manchester next week, “so we are going to lay on a special Warehouse Project Hacienda night”.