Alex Salmond could come back as an MP. Photo: Getty
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Will Alex Salmond return to Westminster? He would relish such a homecoming

The natural next step for Scotland's outgoing First Minister would be a return to Westminster.

The thought of England being “much safer” in the hands of Alex Salmond is one which will cause mirth in Scotland and terror at Westminster. Bloodied and bruised by defeat in September’s independence referendum even this most confident and pugnacious of politicians could have been forgiven for quietly departing the political scene.

Not Salmond though; not when there’s plenty of fun and games to be had at the expense of the British state. Last week he made his final speech as SNP leader and bowed out with a live grenade of an interview for Newsweek Europe in which he spoke at length about the state of UK politics. In so doing he added to the already feverish speculation that he intends to stand as a candidate in next May’s general election and further ratcheted up the post-referendum ante.

“It’s likely there is a potential route of progress through Westminster, which has not been the usual circumstance before. Who knows, there might be one or two things we can knock off for the good citizens of Liverpool and Newcastle" he said “because they badly need a champion of some sort.”

This is plainly a message about using SNP muscle to bring about greater social justice across these islands. But there’s also a context – namely the most unpredictable general election in years. The SNP – currently projected to win all but a handful of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats – know they could hold the balance of power next spring.

Salmond’s more than able successor, Nicola Sturgeon, has said she would “never, ever” enter into government with the Conservatives. But what does this mean for Ed Miliband? Labour will strongly suspect the nationalists are likely to demand a hefty price for formal coalition – perhaps nothing less than another referendum in the lifetime of the coming parliament.

The one thing that would settle the political landscape a little is if the Smith Commission was able to move at speed and broker a workable deal on further devolved powers to Edinburgh. Frankly no one is putting their mortgage on that, least of all Salmond a canny gambler and long-standing exponent of guerrilla tactics.

Those who have observed him from his earliest days – such as former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind who described Salmond as “the infant Robespierre” – know only too well his knack of making waves. Here is a politician kicked out of the SNP as a leading member of the socialist '79 Group and who as a young MP had the temerity to interrupt Nigel Lawson's 1988 Budget speech shouting that the Chancellor’s tax measures were “an obscenity”. He was suspended for this controversial intervention but much later looked back on the incident as “pretty important on a personal level in terms of reputation.”

Even in recent days he has hinted at the prospect of a Scottish UDI, saying “Scotland will take matters into our own hands,” if London does not deliver on the promises made in the final days of the independence campaign. If such comments are a warm-up for his return to the green benches, where he sat as an MP between 1987 and 2010, it will seem as though he’s never been away.

The only oddity in all of this perhaps is that Salmond would be leaving Holyrood for what is, in his eyes, a foreign institution. However, he probably thinks he's seen and done it all and should get out of Sturgeon's way. Wise enough if that is so. Should we be surprised at any of this cunning? Not in the least. For Alex Salmond has long enjoyed being the Scottish fox let loose in the English establishment hen house.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He grew up in Scotland

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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.