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Conservatives offer a five-year freeze in tax cuts: will it have any effect?

The Conservatives' unworkable bribe sounds too good to be true - because it is.

The Conservatives will today seek to reclaim the political agenda with a promise to outlaw any rises in income tax, VAT or national insurance for the next five years. That’s on top of an extra £8bn a year, a cut and a cap in train fares. . . and they’ll do all this while moving the budget into surplus by 2020.

Presumably, if the polls haven’t moved by next Tuesday, they’ll throw in a free unicorn for every adult in a swing seat. 

I don’t know where to start with this, honestly. The pledge is obviously crazy – what happens if you outlaw tax rises, and say, a bank collapses? Or the Eurozone needs a cross-country stimulus to prevent sucking the whole continent into recession? Or Britain’s defence needs are suddenly radically different?

Will it work? As one Labour MP observed recently, “people like free stuff”. People who’ve had a fairly awful half-decade or more like free stuff even more.

More importantly, it’s the first Tory message of the short campaign that can be broken down into a pleasing goodie for a two-minute news bulletin. Repeated over and over again for the campaign’s final seven days, coupled with further warnings about the SNP, it might be enough for the Conservatives to blunt Labour’s advantage in England and Wales and remain in office.

But will it? Visiting the Welsh marginals last week, the number one reason people gave for backing the Conservatives was that they needed time to finish the job, something I'm told is a repeated refrain on the doorsteps. If there is money available for a freeze in tax rates and further spending, it doesn't sound as if the mission is half-done and Labour are too big a risk. It sounds as if the good times are here again, and maybe it's time to give Miliband a crack of the whip. 

David Cameron and George Osborne have spent the last five years saying that there is no money left, that we have to tighten our belts, that the recovery is either just around the corner, or too fragile to risk Labour’s extra borrowing and more debt. That appeals to what one Conservative describes as the country’s “Blitz spirit” – and means that, for all the pain of the last few years, people are still inclined to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt. And it's not so long ago since the coalition's final budget, when Osborne had the opportunity to hand out tax cuts - but didn't. It's one thing for the Tories to have a message that is attacked by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but quite another to have a policy that runs contrary to everything they've done and said for the last five years. Far from turning the election in their favour, they may have just tilted the battle in Miliband's direction.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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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.