Did Manchester City Council rig the vote on a controversial car park development? Was the Leese administration “rehearsed in private and performed in public”?Twelve guerrilla snapshots from the municipal front line

[Photo: David Dixon / Creative Commons]
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Today’s Manchester is, of course, the child not of Andy Burnham but of Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein. They took an idea for a city which had been dreamed in the 1980s by people who got out of bed at eleven in the morning and skinned up, left to their own devices – the Factory Records generation – and built it down into a whole new town in the city centre, using the 1996 IRA bomb as an opportunity to redraft the shopping district and stoking the economy with resurgent tech, service and Factory-friendly culture sectors.

Which in its way is one of the great political feats of our times.

Along with George Osborne and David Cameron the two men then devised the twin planks of a planned northern renaissance: Devo Manc and the Northern Powerhouse.

Beneath his framed photo of City captain Neil Young in the city’s real seat of power – town hall room 207, Sir Richard’s office – I asked the council leader what the northern powerhouse really means.

It was in the aftermath of Osborne’s fêted Museum of Science & Industry launch.

To Sir Richard it was a vision of trains…new faster modern trains linking up with other fast modern trains in a faster supercharged train network delivering workers to opportunities across the North in one glorious, electrified jobs market stretching from Liverpool to Leeds, Sheffield and beyond.

“Get the connections and you create a single labour market,” he told me. “You end up with a virtual city of ten million people with the potential benefits of agglomeration, specialisation and scale.”

I tried to picture this railtrack utopia, with its busy trains and searing skyscrapers and happy citizens getting up in Northenden to go to work in Knaresborough.

Six years on, the slowing creep of HS2 (expected 2032/33), HS3 (hardly expected at all), the Northern Hub (we still await the two new Piccadilly through-platforms, 15 & 16, required to alleviate the infamous Manchester Bottleneck) and the Bee Network (smoked out from a ten to twenty-year delivery timeframe) mean that some of us may not live to see the electric promised land.

The May elections – and the surprise leadership bid which followed – came at a curious time around the town hall. What with the pandemic, and official business moving online, hardly anybody had seen each other for a year. Pat Karney’s gossip cupboard was reportedly bare as a Scotsman’s knee; the backbench grown perceptibly distant from the executive.

From a vacuum of gossip the notion of a ‘power vacuum’ around Sir Richard materialised. When two key players (Louise Wyman, strategic director of growth and development and Suzanne Richards, executive member for housing & regeneration) stepped down the same week in April it was spun as “meltdown” in the pages of Place North West, the property website which, in the absence of a regular Manchester tattle page, assumes the role from time to time.

Joanne Roney’s position was openly discussed, with her deputy, Carol Culley, touted as a replacement.

As Sir Howard’s successor, Roney has confounded some Labour group members with her low-key approach.

“She was brought in to do the basics on the basis that another Howard would probably fall out with Richard,” one told me.

Now Sir Richard accompanies her to MIPIM, it’s said, having not previously attended in Sir Howard’s day.

The substance of the briefing against her, almost inevitably, is of a woman ill-suited to the job.

This notional ‘hollowing-out’ of Leese’s power centre supposedly leaves him, in the twilight of his tenure, unassailably strong and yet strangely alone as the city faces up to a future his brand of politics may or may not be suited to.

 

 

Personable but patronising, sedulously-briefed yet strategically quick to turn nasty at the first sign of trouble…the optics may say ‘Geography teacher on a final warning’ but Sir Richard Leese’s great trick in Mancunian politics, it sometimes seems, has been to make himself appear the only adult in the room, masterminding a municipal real estate revolution among fainter-hearted colleagues with a zeal comparable to Tony Blair’s commitment to the Iraq War.

Coming to power just six weeks before the 1996 IRA bomb blew regeneration into the mainstream of the Manc agenda, Leese has been the northern Labour chief London can do business with, fast-tracking a forest of city centre skyline enhancements and seeking to re-establish Manchester’s status as a ‘world city’.

His tenure was rocked in 2010 when he accepted a police caution following a domestic argument in which he struck his teenage step-daughter across the face. Then, after his marriage to Harpurhey councillor Joanne Green broke down there was gossip about womanising; talk of a typical, raven-haired ‘Leese woman’; tongues wagging about exes supposedly shunted from department to department. But it never hurt him politically.

He’s described by one colleague as having played the system like an orchestra. Astride the largest, most dominant Labour Group in the country, whose cabinet members are conveniently recycled to the backbenches every four years, the sheer numbers required have made it impossible for any one rival to muster the huge 48-strong faction that would be required to topple him.

“The clever thing Richard has done is to allow the executive to be chosen by the Group,” one Labour dissident tells me. “In theory that looks less powerful than appointing a cabinet, but if he were to nominate the cabinet himself it would make him weaker because although he would have power of patronage, he would also make enemies. That doesn’t really happen.”

Quite a plus for a political leader.

Meanwhile the riptides of the Labour group itself remain a nightmare to navigate.

“The group will never tolerate a leader whose allegiances are to the South Manchester Right [Rebecca Moor, Matt Strong, John Hacking]. And any new leader would have to unite them with the North Manchester ‘80s Left [Pat Karney, Joanne Green, Basil Curley]. You also have the Wythenshawe Community-First lot [Paul Andrews, Tommy Judge] and the East Manchester Mixed Contingent to bear in mind [Julie Reid and John Hughes broadly on the left, John Flanagan, Joanne Grimshaw to the right of them].

If he stepped aside tomorrow Bev Craig would stand and win.”

The problem is, no one has the faintest idea when he will.

 

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