Unshackled and now backed, this is Steve Rotheram’s moment

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The weeks after his historic victory in the first ever Liverpool City Region Metro Mayoral election in 2017 should have been some of the most exciting of Steve Rotheram's career – instead they were some of the most difficult.

He had barely got his foot through the door of his new Mann Island office when he found himself in a bruising and public war of words with Joe Anderson, the sitting Mayor of Liverpool.

Tensions between the two were already high leading up to that election.

The Metro Mayor role was one that Mr Anderson wanted – and he felt he was on course to land the all important Labour nomination before Mr Rotheram announced he would be leaving his then Walton MP seat to contend the newly devolved position.

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He would go on to secure that nomination – in effect granting him the new role – and seriously upsetting the then Mayor of Liverpool.

These tensions bubbled over not long after Mayor Rotheram's election win, with a series of leaked emails highlighting the difficult situation between the two.

There were other problems too for the new Metro Mayor.

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While his close friend Andy Burnham, elected to the equivalent new role in Greater Manchester at the same time, was applauded in to his fully functional and well equipped Combined Authority office, Mayor Rotheram found himself struggling to find a desk to work from in his.

There were actually no combined authority staff to be seen – there weren't even any computers.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority was well established and had been set up a good three years before its equivalent along the M62 – but this was just one of the difficulties facing the former bricklayer as he set out in his new job.

The presence of Joe Anderson – a big, bullish character in a directly elected role in the big city in the region – was always going to be a challenge for someone coming into this new regional position.

Add to that the fact the two were not on speaking terms and you get a bit of a nightmare scenario for a new political figure.

Those tensions would continue for many months.

The other challenge facing the new Metro Mayor in 2017 was the role itself.

People were expecting immediate results from a largely strategic and very new position – with mainly soft powers that had never been used in the region before.

So it was a difficult start – and even Mayor Rotheram would admit he struggled to get going.

A year into the position and many were asking what he had done – or in some cases, who he was.

While well known locally through his work as an MP – particularly on Hillsborough – he didn't have the profile of his pal Andy Burnham and would rarely be seen on television or across the media in the early years, it was clear his profile needed work.

This began to change as he built a new team around him and people started to see more and more of the man they had elected – and hear more about the work he was doing and his vision for the future.

Concrete policies like lowering tunnel tolls were matched with strong ideas to take the region forward, including plans for a much-needed integrated public transport system and a green revolution including a major Mersey Tidal project.

But it is probably the last year in which Rotheram has come most to prominence – with the circumstances of our time playing a key role.

From the early days of the pandemic he would appear alongside his friend Andy Burnham to question and scrutinize the government's treatment of the north.

Steve Rotheram giving his victory speech after securing a second term as Liverpool City Region Mayor

The two provided a solid and effective partnership at a time when northern areas felt they were being badly treated by a government struggling to contain the virus.

Steve Rotheram is a very different character from his friend and when Mr Burnham was making headlines for taking the fight to the government over Covid support, the Liverpool City Region Mayor and his team worked behind the scenes to secure a deal they felt was the best possible in the difficult circumstances.

Of course things would change dramatically in December when Mr Anderson was arrested on as part of a corruption probe linked heavily to Liverpool City Council.

The 63-year-old denies wrongdoing but was forced to step aside from his position and accept he would not be seeking a third term in office.

What followed were the damning revelations of the Max Caller report, read out in brutal detail in Parliament by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick.

Most Labour leaders would not want to be publicly complimented by a Tory minister, but the fact that Steve Rotheram – alongside Liverpool Council chief executive – Tony Reeves, were singled out as the only figures to come out well from the grim episode was important.

It was clear for all to see that he and his office were not in any way linked to the problems in Liverpool – something that voters would recognise too.

That historically bad inspection was always going to impact Labour's vote share in the city mayoral and council elections last week – and it did.

While Joanne Anderson (no relation), succeeded her near-namesake to make history as the first black female leader of a major city, she did so with a severely reduced majority and a more organised opposition could perhaps have made things a lot closer.

While clearly not involved with the Liverpool Council failures, there may have been some fears in team Rotheram that these issues could have impacted on his vote – especially with it all taking place on the same day.

In fact something to the contrary happened as Mayor Rotheram was re-elected with a thumping 58% of first preference votes.

His effort seriously outperformed Labour in Liverpool – and actually across the city region – as voters who turned away from the party for various reasons stuck with the former bricklayer.

It's a thumping majority and shows the region has faith in Steve Rotheram to take things forward – but the pressure will now be on for him to deliver real results in this second term.

There can no longer be the excuse offered that these are new powers and new ideas – people will want to see what it all means for their daily lives.

And there will also be a very different working relationship with the new Mayor Anderson in Liverpool – Joanne Anderson has worked closely with the Metro Mayor before and the two exchanged warm wishes this weekend.

There are huge challenges in terms of the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency – two issues Mayor Rotheram has put at the heart of his manifesto.

So the pressure is on, but the road is now clear and this is very much Steve Rotheram's moment.