Lib Dem dreams, ripped at the seams?

Clegg's and Cameron's MPs are singing very different songs about the prospects for Lords reform

Coalition relations have suddenly taken a turn from Grease. Yes, that Grease. The musical. Everyone in cabinet was at the same meeting yesterday. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are signed up to the same coalition agreement and the government has now signed off on the same plan for redesigning Parliament’s upper chamber. And yet the tunes coming out of the Tory and Lib Dem camps are so very different. It reminds me of the Thunderbirds and the Pink Ladies pumping Danny and Sandy for the details of their summer fling. Same story; utterly incompatible interpretation. (“Saved Clegg’s life, he nearly drowned.”/ “Cameron showed off, splashing around.”)

Lib Dems are bullish, quite remarkably so in fact. The message from Clegg HQ is that Lords reform will definitely happen and that Cameron will get enough of his MPs to vote for it. I am told that one of the most energetic speakers in favour of delivering the plan at yesterday’s cabinet session was George Osborne. Senior Lib Dems insist they have effectively transmitted the seriousness of their intentions to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, that they aren’t mucking around, that this thing has to be done and that Tory MPs can bloody well vote for it. “We’ve held our noses and our breath to walk through the lobbies for them enough times,” says one senior Lib Dem source.  

No one thinks it will be easy for Cameron to deliver Conservative votes for Clegg. One explanation for this week’s speech outlining a new, tougher Tory line on welfare – and perhaps for the U-turn on fuel duty rises yesterday – is that  the party leadership needs to earn some brownie points with the right before it starts whipping them behind hated Cleggite initiatives. The burst of True Blue gunfire, says one Lib Dem, is “air cover” for the impending retreat on Lords reform.

They wish. The view among Conservative MPs seems to be that Lords reform remains negotiable. I have yet to detect much sign of rebels laying down their arms and there are reports of Tories being told their career prospects will not be harmed if they decide they cannot vote with the government. The official line is very much that a vote will be whipped and that the usual ministerial duties therefore apply (in other words, anyone on the government payroll would have to resign if they wanted to rebel)*. There is some speculation too that one reason Cameron continues to postpone his long-awaited reshuffle is that he needs the prospect of promotion as an incentive to temper sedition. Since MPs who are passed over and ministers who are sacked will be a source of mischief, Cameron would rather wait until Lords reform battles are fought before creating a mini-cohort of resentful also-rans. So the slightly over-wrought theorising goes, anyway.

Cameron might simply have under-estimated how passionately his MPs feel about sabotaging Clegg’s ambitions. Many sincerely hate the specific proposals on offer for Lords reform. Many more want revenge for slights, offences and past policy sacrifices. There is particular fury over Lib Dem abstention on a Labour motion targeting Jeremy Hunt earlier this month. Why, ask Tory MPs, should such disloyalty to a governing partner not be repaid in kind? One Conservative minister warns that Cameron and Osborne “have no idea what goes on in the party.”

So perhaps Clegg and friends are justified in thinking they have all the assurances they need that Cameron is on side. Perhaps Cameron has made those very assurances. It might just also be the case that the Prime Minister can’t deliver on them.  

*Update: This line has now been tightened in a briefing from the PM's spokesman. There are no "nods and winks" apparently. And anyone defying the whips will "be making an interesting career move."

The message from Clegg HQ is that Lords reform will definitely happen. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.