‘The King of the North’: what makes up the Burnham factor?

Rosa Silverman
·6-min read
Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham

There’s a section of the sentient, adult population who have self-reported some new symptoms lately: a racing heart; a weakness in the knees; a predilection for full-bodied eyebrows and long, beguiling eyelashes. Those eyelashes…

Wait, where were we? Oh yes: Andy Burnham, a self-styled King of the North; defender of his land; brave advocate for “people too often forgotten by those in power”; wearer of quite nice glasses; owner of beautifully coiffed hair. The list goes on…

OK, you might not completely agree. But it’s hard to ignore the number of women suddenly falling for his easy charm across the political spectrum.

Rarely does a politician bubble up who inspires such warm feelings on opposing sides and becomes known by his first name only – think Boris. And now Andy.

You probably know Burnham for his current incarnation as the regional mayor who won’t take £60 million for an answer. All attention has been on the youthful-looking 50-year-old this week, as he stood up for Greater Manchester as the county is shunted, kicking and screaming, into a form of pandemic purgatory known as Tier 3 – taking local businesses with it.

But wherever you stand on his politics, one thing that is uniting opinion is Burnham’s “cool dad” style, which is fast turning him into Britain’s latest political pin-up. “Girls, shall we form a fan club?” inquired one woman on Twitter, in response to posts such as: “Andy Burnham comes out of this looking noble and even hot.”

“Andy Burnham… I am positively swooning,” admitted another.

If there’s such a thing as a political X factor, Burnham is the man who’s got it. If you could bottle it, privatise it and sell it to the highest bidder, goodness knows his Tory rivals would. So what’s the recipe?

The back story

Burnham in 2006, 2008 and 2015 - The Telegraph/ Reuters/ The Telegraph
Burnham in 2006, 2008 and 2015 - The Telegraph/ Reuters/ The Telegraph

Burnham was born in Aintree, Liverpool, to a telephone engineer father and receptionist mother, whose Catholic faith he inherited. State school educated, he went on to study English at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he met his future wife (more of whom later).

He was 14 when he joined the Labour Party, having apparently been “radicalised” by the miners’ strike. In 2001, he was elected MP of Leigh in Greater Manchester and, as a young and notably attractive high flier, went on to serve in Gordon Brown’s government as culture secretary and health secretary. He ran for the Labour leadership in 2010 (losing to Ed Miliband) and 2015 (losing to Jeremy Corbyn).

Having put criticism for policy flip-flopping and the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal behind him, he won the mayoralty of Greater Manchester in 2017 with 63 per cent of the vote. The man who would be king had become king of the North instead. Which very much suits a guy who once told Mumsnet he prefers beer, chips and gravy to biscuits.

The principles

Yes, we’ll return to the eyelashes in a second but the principles are part of the appeal so bear with. A man of the soft Left, he distanced himself from the Blair-Brown era later on, saying of New Labour that its “early albums were very good”, but suggesting it had “courted power and influence too much”. 

On becoming mayor, Burnham launched a fund to tackle regional homelessness and vowed to contribute 15 per cent of his own pay every month. In his mayoral victory speech, he promised – threatened? – that Greater Manchester was going to “take control”. Little wonder there have been people cheering this week.

In years to come, Burnham’s story will be dramatised in one of those gritty BBC films with a Madchester soundtrack.

The body language

Earnest. Purposeful. Striding. Think football manager meets trade union boss meets the dad that everyone not-so-secretly fancies at the school gates. 

One lobby journalist says: “He has a charisma and man-of-the-people authenticity about him. Despite really being the ultimate insider and coming up the ranks as a special adviser, he somehow doesn’t come across as a smarmy politician.” 

Or, as Sarah Crook, a history lecturer at Swansea University, put it on Twitter: “Seeing Andy Burnham now is like running into an ex who was not very cool who suddenly got really hot and is now dating a model.”

The eyelashes

Andy Burnham - Paul Ellis/AFP
Andy Burnham - Paul Ellis/AFP

Everyone, even other male MPs from across the political divide, have talked at length about his eyelashes. If they don’t yet have their own dedicated Instagram account, it seems only a matter of time.

According to one Westminster insider, the Burnham lashes were much discussed during his thrusting shadow cabinet days, when many were disillusioned with Miliband. Burnham once had to deny wearing mascara, so intense was the speculation. His nickname in Parliament was Captain Scarlet - a reference some of his new fans may be too young to get.

The wife

Family man: Andy Burnham with wife Marie-France van Heel and children (L to R) Jimmy, Rosie and Annie - AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFFOLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Family man: Andy Burnham with wife Marie-France van Heel and children (L to R) Jimmy, Rosie and Annie - AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFFOLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

He married Dutch-born Marie-France van Heel, known as “Frankie”, in 2000 and the couple – who met at university – have a son and two daughters. Frankie is a marketing and branding strategist at a firm called Heavenly. She also has a sideline in cheering on her husband on social media. 

In 1992, she appeared on ITV’s Blind Date, reportedly after asking Burnham’s permission. Fortunately for him, she didn’t hit it off with “Will from Surrey” during their trip to Gibraltar. 

In 2010, she underwent a voluntary double mastectomy after testing positive for the breast cancer gene and having lost her sister to the disease at the age of just 39.

The style

Andy Burnham - PA
Andy Burnham - PA

Swapping his New Labour sharp suits for something a little less North London and a little more Northern England has worked a treat for Burnham. 

One colleague describes his current look as “Madchester utility jacket, good for a dog walk, night out or press conference”. A cynic might suggest that it’s all carefully curated to give that “man of the people” appearance.

During an appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 2010, Burnham selected three songs by Morrissey and two by the Pogues, while his book of choice was David Peace’s The Damned Utd, about Seventies football. It’s hard to think of a better way of weaponising culture to display your pull-yerself-up-by-the-bootstraps style. 

He’s a big football fan, by the way. And a keen football player. And a once-talented junior cricketer. See? There is literally nothing he can’t do – except become leader of the Labour Party.