Andy Burnham has told of his disappointment at being overlooked for a prominent role at Labour conference since becoming mayor of Greater Manchester, decrying Westminster’s “aggressive and negative” briefing culture in a tacit criticism of those close to his party’s leadership.
The relationship between Burnham, still regarded by many members as a potential leader in waiting, and Starmer has been marked by tensions while the mayor’s backing for a ceasefire in Gaza is one area on which the two have diverged.
Burnham denied he was admonished for taking the position, shared with other Labour mayors, and used an interview with the House magazine to compare the situation to that shortly before the Iraq war in 2003, adding that it was not possible to have a firm, three-line-whip party line on the issue.
The interview was carried out ahead of a decision by Starmer to whip his MPs in line with his position on a ceasefire, prompting a rebellion and subsequent resignations from his frontbench.
Burnham, who has not spoken on the main stage at Labour conference in recent years, says: “Ill be honest, I’ve found it quite hard at times that I’ve never been asked to speak at Labour party conference in this role.
“I see the anonymous briefings and things. I’m well beyond caring about it very much,” he told the weekly political magazine, which is read widely at Westminster and elsewhere.
“Why does the system down there feel the need to brief against people? It’s not a new thing, I saw it when I was in government. I’d like to think – and you can speak to people who were there when I was a minister – I didn’t really ever do that type of thing. It is quite macho and aggressive and negative.”
He praised the emerging role being played by Sue Gray, the former senior civil servant who has been hired as Starmer’s chief of staff.
“There’s a real opportunity for an incoming Labour government to work in a way that we’ve never quite seen before,” Burnham says.
“The way Sue Gray has gone about working with us and discussing that opportunity with us is great. It’s really positive. I think Sue, given her civil service experience, understands the shortcomings of the way we’ve run the country. And that much is clear to me from working with her.
Burnham also served notice that he would take up oppositional positions to a government led by Starmer, comparing the situation to that of Andy Street, the Conservative West Midlands mayor who has clashed with Rishi Sunak over HS2.
“It’s not a bad thing if Andy Street says to his own party, ‘maybe you need to think again about this’. And it wouldn’t be if I did. The world shouldn’t end,” says Burnham.