Andy Burnham: are you having a laugh?

Shadow health secretary acts like a bloke just passing by in the Labour leadership contest.

For some time, I've had the impression that Andy Burnham, admirable politician though I am sure he is in many ways, is not running for the Labour leadership seriously to win, but merely to raise his profile and consolidate his position as a senior player in the shadow cabinet.

Certainly during the New Statesman hustings in June, he acted a little like he had been grabed off the street and thrown on to the stage. "Yeah I'll have a crack at it," you could almost imagine him saying. Undecided on electoral reform, determined to press his northerner credentials, he appeared to offer little substance.

That is probably unfair, and he has come up with some impressive ideas in the campaign, especially regarding the National Health Service. But reading this Q&A with all the candidates in the Independent made me again think that Burnham's candidacy is something of a joke. Indeed, when I first saw it, I literally thought it might be a spoof.

Asked which individual had the greatest influence on their career, the Milibands said their parents, Ed Balls said Margaret Thatcher (in a negative way) and Diane Abbott said Nelson Mandela. Burnham's answer? Chris Smith. Now, don't get me wrong: I have great respect for Chris Smith. But when you can name anyone in the whole world as an influence, his isn't necessarily the first name to come to mind.

It gets better. The candidates are asked which person -- that's "which person", so anyone on earth -- they most admire. The Milibands say their partners. Only slightly oddly, Balls names a diary secretary of 12 years. Abbott says Michelle Obama. Deeply parochial Andy Burnham says Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, the outgoing chief medical inspector.

And finally, the pièce de résistance. After various other questions -- including favourite book (Burnham: The Damned United) -- the question is posed: "What was the best moment of your life?"

All of the candidates mention their children. All except, um, Burnham. He has three kids, but chooses to ignore that. Instead, the best moment of his life, he says, was: "Singing 'Dirty Old Town' in front of family and friends from every era of my life at my 40th birthday do earlier this year."

Sorry, but I rest my case.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.