Has Theresa May shot herself in the foot over Mayor u-turn?

Theresa May is said to be worried about giving moderate Labour politicians a voice in the North Credit: PA

By Daniel Hewitt, Political Correspondent

Suggestions that Theresa May isn't so keen on the idea of Labour Mayors running Greater Manchester and Liverpool has, surprise surprise, been met with anger by the two men who will be Labour Mayors in Greater Manchester and Liverpool.

Both Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are furious at a report in The Times that the new Prime Minister could scrap the role of directly-elected mayor, just two weeks after Labour party members selected them to stand in the Mayoral contests next year.

Burnham, who will run in Greater Manchester, called it 'the biggest betrayal', Rotheram demanded Ms May 'stick to a policy she voted for herself a year ago.'

That anger though is not shared in Cheshire.

A devolution deal for Cheshire West and Chester, Cheshire East and Warrington has stalled in recent months specifically because not all the councils want a directly-elected mayor. The same sentiment is felt in Lancashire, where a devolution deal has been slow to materialise. In Liverpool, the signing of the city region deal was delayed for the same reason - in the end, leaders reluctantly accepted that a mayor was a necessary evil in order to get their hands on power and money.

The government's position to date has been an insistence that with devolved powers comes the obligation of a single mayoral figure, with Communities Minister Greg Clarke repeatedly telling council leaders in the North West he 'will not devolve powers to a committee'.

The opposition to a directly-elected mayor in Cheshire and Lancashire is two-fold.

Firstly, both regions are a great deal more rural than Manchester and Liverpool and don’t easily identify as an homogenous ‘city region’. One Cheshire MP told me ‘it takes as long to drive from Chester to Macclesfield as it does from Manchester to Sheffield, yet the government wants one person running both Chester and Macclesfield as if they are one and the same’. Many Cheshire MPs and at least one Council leader thus prefer a committee-model, that allows the region’s obvious differences to be reflected in who holds new devolved powers.

Secondly, unlike Greater Manchester and Liverpool, there is no guarantee Labour would win the Mayoral contests in Cheshire and Lancashire. Labour may control Lancashire County Council and two of the three Cheshire authorities, but Conservatives make up 8 of the 16 MPs in Lancashire and 7 of the 11 MPs in Cheshire. This is a point made by Labour MP for Warrington North, Helen Jones, who has said a directly-elected mayor would likely mean a Tory would run areas of Cheshire which vote overwhelmingly for the Labour Party.

Interestingly, Theresa May appears to share that concern, but for her own party. The Prime Minister is said to have ‘cold feet’ over the idea of directly-elected mayors because they would give Labour a chance to strengthen its position in the party’s heartlands, giving a platform to moderate voices like Andy Burnham.

The government have today insisted their position on city devolution "has not changed and we support the devolution deals already in place."

“We will continue to work closely with local areas and remain open to discussion on any devolution proposals that include strong, accountable governance and clear accountability. This includes directly elected mayors."

The key wording here is ‘open to...any devolution proposals’ - that IS a u-turn from George Osborne’s position of 'no mayor, no devolution'. If the Prime Minister is open to a devolving powers 'to a committee' in Cheshire and Lancashire, then she could be denying her party two powerful politicians in charge of two politically-vital Northern regions.

Daniel Hewitt speaks to William Hague about the government's devolution plans in Manchester Credit: ITV News

George Osborne’s insistence of having elected Mayors was political as well as practical. Last year I interviewed the then Conservative MP William Hague in Manchester. I asked him why he would want to create an elected position in a city region he knew his party would never win, other than to pass the blame onto a Labour Mayor. He of course spun the line of the importance of accountability, but interestingly he also said there was no guarantee Labour would ALWAYS win in Manchester. He pointed to London - a city dominated by Labour but where a Tory, Boris Johnson, was able to win two consecutive terms as Mayor.

‘We may not win the first election in Manchester,’ Mr Hague told me, ‘but we might win the one after that, or the one after that.’

Theresa May, it seems, does not share the same view, but by opening the door to ‘any devolution proposal’ and allowing Greater Manchester and Liverpool to keep their mayors, for now at least, she could be denying two Tory Mayors a platform in Lancashire and Cheshire, and denying her party the chance of winning over Greater Manchester in the future.