PMQs sketch: the thrashing of "Thrasher"

Is Andrew Mitchell sunk or saved? Ed wins anyway.

Aficionados of films of the western genre, otherwise known as cowboy movies, would have thought they had stumbled onto the set of High Noon had they taken a wrong turn into Westminster at lunchtime today. All that was missing was Frankie Laine's rendition of "Do not forsake me oh my darling" as Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell made his lonely way into the House of Commons for what may yet be his last Prime Minister’s Questions in the job he's had for a handful of weeks.

It was standing room only as MPs, back from their latest break, gathered excitedly for the disembowelling of not just one of their own, but someone whose humiliation since "plebgate"could apparently unite members of all parties. Around the country, Old Rugbeians of a certain age must also have gathered for what they could only have dreamed of at school - the thrashing of "The Thrasher". Ever since this soubriquet emerged, it was possible that the PM's choice of chief enforcer might run into trouble, as indeed he did on the night the imperial bicycle was almost arrested. The full import of what was said between Thrasher and the law may never be known but the Telegraph added the useful information yesterday that, even before he proudly picked up that nickname at Rugby he was known at prep school as "Snotch", a composite of Snob and Mitchell.

And so it was against this background that he made his way early into the Commons to tether himself to his seat knowing that his enemies were not just in front of him on the pleb benches  but happily, in the best panto tradition, behind him as well. Having established a reputation for statesmanlike behaviour at recent party conferences, it was always going to be interesting to see how long it would take for the party leaders to resume normal service now that the most recent holiday break was at an end.

Dave knew he was in line for a hiding to nothing and must have spent his pre-PMQs practice this morning on how to handle what Ed M would throw at him. He was thus obviously confused when the Labour leader rose to sound almost complimentary in a question about today's unemployment figures. There had been reports that, following his "one nation” speech a new Ed would arise. Was this him, wondered observers as the PM sat down.

Luckily for all, sketch writers included , it was only a wheeze to catch Dave off guard and, quick as a flash, Ed turned unemployment into a question about police numbers and, from there, it was only a short bike ride to a question about Thrasher. Throughout this preamble, the object of the gathering storm had slunk deeper into his seat next to deposed Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, "promoted" to Leader of the House in the same reshuffle, who must be getting enormous satisfaction out of the whole affair. Now he could only stare off into that space normally booked by Dave's deputy Nick Clegg as Ed, egged on by his now happy members, gathered himself for the assault.

To add insult to planned injury, he worked his way into position by offering in evidence the words of the PM's other favourite public schoolboy Boris Johnson on police matters. Had not the Mayor said yobs who swore at the police should be arrested, said Ed, to the delight of his side and the discomfort of the other. "It's a night in the cells for a yob and a night in the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip," he said, with all the pleasure of someone who had managed to successfully speak the off-the-cuff remark he had been practising for hours.

By now, Dave's equanimity had departed in a cab for another location and paramedics put on standby as the Prime Ministerial hue changed to its now PMQ standard puce. Had he left it there, Ed would probably have emerged with all the points up for grabs at the weekly contest  but old habits - and his apparently genuine contempt for the PM - die hard. He pointed scornfully to Thrasher's cabinet colleagues and said they too wanted him out. "He's toast,"said the Labour leader. This proved an insult too far for the Tory faithful who, whilst mostly sharing Ed's view, weren't going to take it from someone who they realised just recently may well put more than a few of them on the dole in 2015.

With passers-by no doubt becoming increasingly concerned at the volume of noise accompanying the reasoned debate, Speaker Bercow appealed for calm on all sides, but it was too late. PMQs staggered on, as did the PM, pausing only to have a hissy fit with Labour MP Chris Bryant, who wanted to read Dave's private emails to Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. The Speaker did try to inject some further life into proceedings  by calling Tory MP and Dave-baiter Nadine Dorries but by now emotions had been extinguished and the lunch bell was due. Is Thrasher sunk or saved? Ed wins anyway.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Manchester. 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.