Nigel Farage, pictured during the Newark by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ukip still claim Labour will promise an EU referendum - but what if they're wrong?

Farage needs to explain why he could prevent the referendum he has always wanted. 

Ukip may no longer be a single-issue party, but it still has a defining cause: the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union. Twenty years after it was founded, David Cameron finally gave the party what it wanted last year: a promise of an in/out referendum.

The PM’s pledge created an awkward question for Nigel Farage: why, if you want a vote so badly, are you helping to stop the Tories (who have promised one), rather than Labour (who haven’t), winning the general election? As is well known, despite Farage’s protestations to the contrary, Ukip draws nearly half of its support from 2010 Conservative voters. The divided right, combined with a more unified left, could gift Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street.

To this, Farage had a simple reply: after the European elections, and Ukip’s victory, Labour, too, would be forced to promise a referendum. He said in April: "The way to get a referendum on Europe is to beat Labour in May and force Ed Miliband to promise a vote on Europe if he becomes Prime Minister. If both the big parties promise a referendum, we should get one. That's why all our concentration is on Labour in the next few weeks."

The elections came, and Ukip triumphed, but Miliband did not waver. Rather than matching Cameron’s pledge (as some on his own side demanded), he maintained that a Labour government would only hold a referendum in the unlikely event of a further transfer of powers to Brussels. Miliband, who rightly believes that he has a good chance of becoming prime minister, is not prepared to allow the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by a vote that he would struggle to win, and that could force his resignation. For a guaranteed referendum, the public will have to back the Tories.

So what does Ukip say now? When I asked a spokesman earlier today, I was told: 

Labour have a near blank manifesto, and as the general election fast approaches, we expect their stance on the EU will change as their hopes of an overall majority continue to fall apart. Just like the Conservatives they are haemorrhaging votes to Ukip. The wise decision would therefore surely be to offer a referendum.

In fact, as I’ve argued before, there are many more reasons for Labour not to offer one, but leave that aside; the question Ukip must answer is: "what if you’re wrong?" Unlike Cameron, Miliband does not lurch, he does not U-turn. When a stance is adopted, typically in the form of a detailed speech, it is maintained. With Labour far more united than the Tories on Europe (a reversal of the situation in 1975), there is no prospect of Miliband coming under comparable internal pressure to Cameron.

The answer to that question was provided in the second half of the spokesman’s response: "The only reason the Tories are even discussing a referendum is due the threat of Ukip. However nobody else can be trusted on this issue. Both coalition partners went into the election promising a referendum, yet when the government came together the Lib Dems blamed the small print of their leaflet for withdrawing the offer and Cameron showed that his cast-iron guarantee was also just hot air. The only way to get anything other than an empty promise on the EU is to vote Ukip."

Based on Cameron’s past failure to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (after it was approved by EU member states before the Tories entered office in 2010), Ukip argue that he can’t be trusted this time round. It is precisely to counter such claims that Cameron has vowed to resign as prime minister if he is unable to deliver a vote on EU membership. Such is the (understandable) cynicism of the electorate, that even this may not be enough. But as the general election approaches, there are at least some Ukip voters who will ask why the party is scuppering their chance to have their say in 2017. If he is to retain their support, Farage needs to come up with a better answer soon.

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.