Sketch: no laughs from serious Dave

Tory delegates wriggled uncomfortably as their leader told them tough times were still ahead.

It was the sudden appearance of Charles Montgomery Burns, masquerading as the Mayor of New York, which offered a clue that this would be a Prime Ministerial speech with a difference. The job of any Tory party leader on the last day of conference has traditionally been to send delegates out onto the streets, jaws dripping with blood after being fed the raw meat of intolerance for an hour.

But David Cameron turned that on its head this morning, with sixty minutes that left them confused and a danger to any plump passers by. The PM had already adopted the now traditional route of putting out today's speech yesterday to allow those turning up to know in advance most of what he was going to say. Those who did decide to make the effort had obviously come expecting to be sent to whatever counts as the barricades in Tory Party circles. But the omens were bad from the start, when reports started to come in claiming there were more people queuing at Birmingham New Street for trains out of town than for seats for their leader's words of wisdom.

After the Mayor of London had spent yesterday feeding delegates out of his hands, you could see they were somewhat confused by the sudden emergence of his New York counterpart, Michael Bloomberg, as official warm-up man for their leader. Where Boris had them rolling in the aisles, Michael could only manage them rolling their eyes as he rolled through an ad for his city and a couple more for the PM.

Whether this was a cunning plan to bore them into submission or to set the speaking bar so low that even Lassie could qualify, was yet to be seen as Mr B tottered off and the lights were thankfully lowered. By now, delegates were so confused that they broke into applause for the scene shifters as they swooped in to replace one lectern with another and polish up Dave's autocue. The Prime Ministerial minders had already let it be known that today's speech would be serious words for serious times and when he finally arrived on stage, fashionably late, his pallor gave off that intention - although he had also been for an infamous Birmingham balti the night before.

And from the off, it was clear he did not intend to play this one for laughs and delegates wriggled uncomfortably as he told them tough times are still ahead. He mentioned Chancellor George, happily escaped abroad, and they sat on their hands. He half-heartedly pressed a couple of the usual buttons, welfare and trade unions, which would normally bring them to their feet but they shuffled into hardly more than polite applause.

Having been stung by Ed Miliband's constant reminders that he leads the party of the rich - much to the satisfaction of many delegates - he said he didn't look at the label on the tin but what was in it. As some turned to their neighbours for guidance, the PM declared he was not here to defend privilege but to spread it and that at last provoked the first stirrings of enthusiasm from his listeners. Cut-aways by the TV cameras showed his cabinet desperately trying to show interest, none more so than new Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, whose appointment must surely have caused as much confusion to Tory Party activists as the rest of the country. 

The purpose of the speech, we were told earlier, was to mark out the Tories as the party of the "strivers" and certainly by now many were striving to look interested. With the appointed hour now finally up, and Dave's throat possibly affected by balti burn, it was left to newly-appointed minister Anna Soubry to be first to her feet to lead the spontaneous standing ovation booked for such occasions.

Dave quickly gathered up Sam Cam and was out of the door before anyone changed their mind. "It's not where you come from the counts, it's where you're going," he had said minutes earlier in his speech - and he wasn't telling us.

David Cameron delivers his speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.