PMQs sketch: Cameron's awkward half hour

Even before it began you knew that Dave was not only without a paddle but probably without a creek.

The high moral ground in the House of Commons has been somewhat harder to climb in recent years, particularly for those who claimed it as a second home.

But it was suddenly back within the reach of all yesterday thanks to the News of the World for doing what it does best -- exposing a scandal at the heart of the establishment: itself.

In one fell swoop MPs shook off three years of being accused of having their hands in their constituents pockets to unite in condemnation of at least some of their accusers.

Indeed even before the Prime Minister arrived for PMQs you could hear them sharpening the guillotine, giving the wheels of the tumbril a bit of a polish and getting their high horses out of the stables.

There is nothing quite like a common enemy to unite MPs of all parties and as enemies go there cannot be many more common than the News of the World.

Could it only be days since the luckiest if them had quaffed champagne at the summer party of News International and shook hands, if lucky, with the NoW's owner Rupert Murdoch -- not to mention his presence on earth, or at least London, the flame-haired CEO Rebekah Brooks?

All of this was to be out behind them in defence of the people's outrage over phone-hacking, bungling by the police and general lying to all and sundry.

Even before PMQs began you knew that Dave was not only without a paddle but probably without a creek.

It was against that background that Ed Miliband knew he was onto a winner even before he got to his feet .This was particularly helpful because before Rupert rode to the rescue the Labour leader had been having another lean week.

Having had one survey which said 25 per cent of the population thought he was his brother David another put his personal rating among voters as lower than that of Ian Duncan Smith. That finding so worried Tory Party managers at the time that IDS was dumped.

Ed therefore could afford to look relieved as he asked the Prime Minister to "speak for the people" and agree to an inquiry into the allegations of phone-hacking, which have now spread from the rich and famous to the ordinary and vulnerable.

The Prime Minister, only hours back from a derailed PR trip to Afghanistan, trumped Ed by immediately promising two inquiries -- one into the press and its culture, and the second into the scale of backhanders to the police.

But even as Dave and Ed were doing their Mr Statesman performances and the House was doing its ritual braying in approval, all knew this was not why we were here.

As silkily as he could Ed said surely the BSkyB take-over by Rupert should now be referred elsewhere since the hacking scandal raised all sorts of issues.

Dave knew it was coming and knew he had no answer, or at least not one that anyone on his side had managed to come up with in the previous 12 hours.

His voice rose in direct proportion to his skin colour as he fumbled his way through all he had been given to say so far. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was acting in a "quasi-judicial" way over the BskyB bid he blustered.

At this the Commons camera cut to the elfin figure of Mr Hunt who was sitting, one assumes quasi-judicially, just down the front bench from the PM with the nervous look of someone to whom the parcel has just been passed as the music stops.

Now that he had the PM rocking with the punches Ed moved in again, this time demanding Dave support his call for CEO Rebekah to go.

This is a tricky one for the PM since she and he are close friends and some say he helped persuade Rupert to keep her on earlier in the year.

Ed knows all that, but has the added insurance of not being far enough up the food chain during Labour's time in office to get to know the Murdoch clan as closely as Tony did.

Having failed to get News International's endorsement for his own election he has nothing to lose, at the moment, from taking them on.

By now Dave had the pallor of someone with a serious claim against the tanning salon he had just left. George Osborne, usually his spare back-bone during PMQs looked equally lost, and Deputy PM Nick Clegg could only sit back and enjoy another week out of the firing line.

The Prime Minister managed to non-answer the question about friend Rebekah's future in a way which left everyone, probably including her, confused.

But the agony and the ecstasy was still not over because Ed had still to mention the "C" word: Coulson, Andy.

It is six months since Andy quit as Dave's Alistair Campbell because the phone-hacking inquiry was apparently putting him off his stroke. It is now alleged that Andy, former editor of the newspaper that dare not now speak its name, may have played some part in transferring funds from the coffers of the NoW to the pension plans of certain policemen.

"Didn't Dave regret taking him on?" asked Ed. "You're not kidding," Dave didn't say.

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

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

Getty.
Show Hide image

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.