Cable positions himself as the man for a Lib Dem-Labour coalition

Forecasting a hung parliament at the next election, the Business Secretary looked to life after the Tories.

Vince Cable used his speech to the Lib Dem conference to present himself as a free radical, a man who was prepared to work with the Tories and Labour when they were right and to criticise them when they were wrong. He restated the original rationale for the coalition - to provide national government at a time of "permanent crisis" - but added that he made no apology for maintaining "good communications with politicians across the spectrum", before motioning as if he had just received a text, "Please Ed, not now, this is not the time". Cable's political motives became clear at the end of the speech, when he suggested that the most likely outcome of the next election was another hung parliament (the British people, he said, would not want to "entrust their future to any one party"). If you want someone who can lead the Lib Dems into coalition with Labour, he implied, I'm the man for the job; messrs Miliband and Balls already having ruled out working with Nick Clegg.

Throughout the speech, the Business Secretary was careful to combine attacks on both parties with references to those areas where they could work together. So he derided the Tory "headbangers" who wanted a "hire-and-fire culture" and the "backwoodsmen" who opposed a mansion tax, but offered a strong endorsement of George Osborne's deficit reduction plan and declared that he had "considerable personal sympathy" for the Chancellor, who was attacked both for "borrowing too much" and "borrowing too little". In a notable jibe at Andrew Mitchell's expense, which was left out of the original text, he also joked that he was a "mere pleb". As for Labour, he mocked Ed Balls's plan to eliminate the deficit over seven years, rather than the coaliton's six ("wow!"), but nodded to Ed Miliband's agenda when he called for a culture of "responsible capitalism".

Cable, who has openly declared that he is prepared to stand for the Lib Dem leadership, was astutue enough to avoid anything resembling disloyalty to Nick Clegg, praising the Deputy PM early on for proving that "coalitions work". But he also deftly positioned himself as a social liberal ("this is no time for the state to be stepping back"), who, unlike Clegg, continued to command respect across the centre-left. While conservative columnists write paeans of praise to the Lib Dem leader (see Boris Johnson's piece in today's Daily Telegraph), Cable reminded activists of a Telegraph poll showing that he was the cabinet minister who Tory activists most wanted to evict from the government. The message to the party's base - "I'm one of you" - could not have been clearer.

Vince Cable gives his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is 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.