Better Together campaign head and former chancellor Alistair Darling. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Darling's rattled performance will increase No campaign anxieties

Better Together head gives tetchy interview after new Scottish independence poll confirms the gap has narrowed to just five points.

As a politician, Alistair Darling is renowned for his calm and reassuring manner (most famously during the financial crisis). But interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show this morning on Scottish independence, he appeared distinctly rattled. As I tweeted during the programme, he sounded like an embattled football manger giving a post-match interview after a bad result.

The bad result, in this case, was a new Panelbase poll (commissioned by pro-independence website Wings over Scotland) putting the Yes vote up four points to 41 per cent, the joint-highest level of support recorded since the campaign began, and the No vote up one to 46 per cent. When the "don't knows" are stripped out, the gap stands at 53-47.

Darling responded by pointing out that Panelbase surveys traditionally favour the No campaign and that "[if] you look at the change from this month to last month, it hasn’t changed one bit. Our lead is exactly the same." This is true (the gap stood at 53-47 in Panelbase's previous poll), but it also means that the earlier survey can't be dismissed as an outlier. With more than five months to go, the No side's lead really has narrowed from 12 points (the highest lead recorded by Panelbase) to just six. Darling also rightly noted that "every single poll conducted this year and last year as well shows us with a consistent lead". But given Alex Salmond's reputation as a strong finisher, this will be of little comfort to many on the Unionist side.

I expect that Darling's tetchy performance, which may have been an attempt to offer some much-demanded passion, will lead to further briefing against him. The Tories, who were warned by Lynton Crosby at the end of last year that the Yes campaign was on course for victory, increasingly fear that his prophecy will be fulfilled.

If the No side is to win, and to win convincingly, one figure who will need to play a bigger role than at present is Gordon Brown. Brown is one of the few Unionist politicians that Salmond concedes poses a threat to the nationalists. He is significantly more popular in Scotland than he is south of the border and has a strong connection with the working class swing voters that the SNP hopes will break for the Yes side in September. At the 2010 general election, while Labour's vote fell by 6.2 per cent across the UK, it rose by 2.5 per cent in Scotland and the party held onto all 41 of its seats. This was thanks in no small part to Brown, whose own constituency vote rose by 6.4 per cent.

His decision not to join the cross-party Better Together campaign, in favour of working with the United with Labour group, also makes it imposssible for Salmond to dismiss him as a Tory proxy. More than anything else, he is capable of displaying the authentic passion that so many are demanding from the No campaign.

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.