When Andy Burnham was elected the first mayor of Greater Manchester in May 2017 less than a third of people bothered to vote. When he announced live on TV earlier this month that the city was being forced into a tighter lockdown by the government against his will, it felt like the whole city was watching.
“Metro mayors have never had higher visibility with the public. They can put pressure on the government. It is going to be very hard to put them back in their box,” said Matt Flinders, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.
As Boris Johnson’s misfiring Westminster government struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Burnham and the six other metro mayors outside London have found a new political platform and purpose.
During the crisis, the need for local organisation and leadership has become clear. Mayors are effectively chairs of the combined authority made up of several borough councils on their patch.
This places them far closer than civil servants in London to the impact of the pandemic on schools, hospitals, local businesses and people.
And once the government decided to tackle a new rise in coronavirus cases by imposing regional lockdowns, rather than the national measures it introduced during the first wave in the spring, it had to negotiate with local leaders to get their endorsement and ensure public compliance.
In the end, Mr Burnham, from the UK’s opposition Labour party, was doomed to lose the battle over how much money the city would get for agreeing to tighter so-called tier 3 restrictions. The Conservative-run Westminster government still controls tax and spending and most policy areas. But Mr Burnham may well win the war.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.
He has already dented Tory chances of retaining northern “red wall” seats won from Labour in last year’s general election, said Prof Flinders, by portraying the government as a London-based elite intent, using Mr Burnham’s words, on enforcing “lockdown on the cheap”.
More than 50 Conservative MPs in the north have since put their names to a letter urging the government to start delivering on promises for the region.
The mayors have also won critical policy victories throughout the crisis.
Steve Rotheram, mayor of Liverpool City Region, faced some criticism for swiftly agreeing a deal with Mr Johnson to enter tier 3 restrictions from October 14. That closed pubs that cannot function as restaurants, along with betting shops, adult gaming centres and casinos.
However, Mr Rotheram successfully pushed for extra support for businesses that would not be shut by the tier 3 measures but would struggle because they relied on pubs for trade, or would lose customers because households could no longer mix outdoors.
Meanwhile, Mr Burnham, who is a former health secretary, was among the first to argue that local authorities should have a big role in tracing the contacts of people who have tested positive for coronavirus. As the national system continues to miss tens of thousands of cases, the government is increasingly embracing this approach.
Mr Burnham also said that many of those told to self-isolate because they were in contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus would not do so, because as casual workers or freelancers they would not get sick pay. The government finally introduced a £500 payment for such people in September.
Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley and an influential spokesman for voters that do not traditionally vote for the party, fought hard to stop his region going into tier 3 but then pressed for support for businesses in tier 2, which prevents households meeting each other in hospitality venues. They could be closed “by default, if not by law”, as fellow Tory mayor Andy Street in the West Midlands put it.
Rishi Sunak, chancellor, last week announced a package of help and improved the furlough scheme for workers.
The former Conservative chancellor George Osborne, who created elected mayors as part of his devolution agenda, said they were a “fantastic success story”.
“We now have a national political conversation, where representatives of the north of England are heard on our national news,” he told a conference last week.
Mr Osborne said it was time to “double down on devolution”, give mayors new powers and ensure every area had one.
Their biggest power, for now, is their media appeal. Most have budgets of £30m a year at most, with some powers over skills, housing and transport. More money must be won from Whitehall for specific projects.
Eight English regions have directly elected mayors, with West Yorkshire following suit next year. It could elect the first female metro mayor, as Tracy Brabin, MP for Batley and Spen, and Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of Bradford city council, are vying for the Labour nomination.
Including London, which has a different model with a directly elected assembly, a total of 21m people in England, or more than a third of the population, live in mayoral authority areas.
Cumbria, Somerset, Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire and East Yorkshire have all submitted plans to the government to have mayors.
Even before the pandemic raised their profile, polling by the Centre for Cities think-tank found that awareness of mayors was growing. In February, 64 per cent of local voters could name Mr Burnham, 41 per cent Mr Houchen and 22 per cent Mr Street. About 72 per cent of Londoners could name Sadiq Khan and the system there is 20 years old.
In all places, at least eight in 10 people wanted more devolution.
However, some in Downing Street may no longer be so keen with reports emerging last week that Mr Burnham’s “bullying” could derail devolution despite it being a clear Tory party manifesto commitment.
A devolution white paper, designed to formalise what has been an ad hoc deal-driven process to date, has been delayed more than once.
But the government will find it hard to “level up” prosperity across the country, without more powerful mayors, said Paul Swinney, of the Centre for Cities.
“The government has two possible responses. Punish Andy Burnham and stop giving mayors money. Or recognise they have created these politicians and give them powers and accountability and say, ‘if you get it wrong you have to take responsibility’,” he said.
He urges the second. “Devolution is part of levelling up.”