Shadow health secretary and Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham speaks during the general election campaign. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Andy Burnham's centrist pitch shows he wants to defy Tory caricature

By adopting a pro-business message and admitting the deficit was too high,  the Labour leadership candidate has frustrated hopes he would turn left. 

When the Labour leadership race began, the Tories immediately identified Andy Burnham as the candidate they wanted to win. The hope was that he would merely be "Miliband with a prettier face" or even tilt leftwards. But Burnham's first speech of the campaign, delivered to business leaders at Ernst & Young, showed that he may not be the Labour leader of their dreams. In the symbolic location of the City of London, the shadow health secretary declared that the party had too often failed to tell business that "we value what you do – creating jobs and wealth." Entrepreneurs, he said, "will be as much our heroes as the nurse or the teacher", countering the impression of a party concerned with the public sector alone. 

In a passage reminiscent of the Tories' mantra that strong public services depend on a strong economy, he added: "Labour must always champion wealth creation, and show we understand that, if we want world-class public services, and if we want high-skill, high-wage jobs, then we must wholeheartedly support the businesses that create the revenue to pay for them." It was a signal that he would never deliver a speech in the mould of Miliband's 2011 "predators and producers" address.

He combined this attempt to reset Labour's relations with business with an admission that the deficit was too high in the years before the crash - answering the spending question that haunted Miliband in the final leaders' TV event. He criticised the party for entering the election "with business and the public unclear on how Labour will balance the books, or when we will do so." In an attempt to pre-empt Tory criticism of his past role as chief secretary of the Treasury from 2007-08, he noted that they had described the spending settlement he delivered as "tough". 

Burnham's policy-rich speech - he also promised to introduce a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships and urged the government to hold the EU referendum by autumn 2016 - also saw him define his personal history and character (something Miliband struggled to do). He was, he said, "the comprehensive lad who went to Cambridge and then into the cabinet". Miliband similarly attended a comprehensive but his north London upbringing and Marxist father meant he failed to avoid being framed as an effete metropolitan. Burnham, by contrast, was able to humbly present himself as "the son of a telephone engineer and a GP receptionist who moved heaven and earth to make sure my brothers and I would be the first in our family to go to university". 

His centrist pitch will make it harder for his Labour opponents to define him as the candidate of the left (a challenge for Yvette Cooper, who seeks to offer a third way between Burnham and the "Blairite" Liz Kendall) and for the Tories to do so. He may have socialist instincts on the NHS ("the public NHS is what works") and free schools (opposing their establishment in areas with surplus place) but then so do most of the public. 

Burnham's greatest hindrance remains his record of service in the last Labour government. While he will have to constantly rebut Tory attacks on his past, the post-2010 Kendall would be able to avoid them altogether. But by demonstrating early on that he has learned from the failure of Labour's economic message he has strengthened his candidacy. The real test, should he be elected, would be sustaining his centrist strategy. Just as successive Tory opposition leaders promised to modernise their party but tilted rightwards under pressure, so Burnham would face pressure to head left if his approach failed to deliver early results. But by signalling that he wants to "rebuild the broad coalition of voters that put us into power in 1997" he has, for now, defied Tory caricature. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder