Is Boris' trademark blond mop showing a peroxide tinge? Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Tom and Jerry, the Corbyn effect and rumours of a bottle blond Boris

The Prime Minister’s closest circle accuses his wannabe successor of dyeing his hair.

Rivalry between the Bullingdon Club frenemies David Cameron and Boris Johnson has taken a turn for the worse. The Prime Minister’s closest circle accuses his wannabe successor of dyeing his hair.

The charge is a bit rich, given that this column reported evidence years ago that Dave’s suspiciously grey-free barnet was coloured to retain a youthful air. But a No 10 insider tells me that a “chlorine tinge” was detected in bright light and it’s assumed that Mr Blond Ambition has also turned to the bottle. Johnson’s mop is his trademark and he is prone to peering into a mirror to check that it’s untidy before appearing in public, ruffling his crowning glory with a hand if it’s too neat. Cameron has anointed George Osborne as his successor. The dye is cast for a grubby fight.

The Labour leadership race’s dynamic has shifted to the advantage of Jeremy Corbyn, with the endorsement of Unite, which has both financial and political clout.

Victory for the left-winger remains improbable, though not impossible. A strong showing, with one Labour shadow cabinet member predicting that Corbyn will be the runner-up, would compel the new leader to offer a post to the rebellious candidate of the party’s Syriza wing. Corbyn is aware that Diane Abbott was made a middling public health spokeswoman after the last leadership contest before Ed Miliband sacked her for disloyalty. The anti-Trident Corbyn has mused that he would take the defence post. The race’s fallout could be considerable.

Austerity extends to the ranks of the army. The defence minister HMS Penny Mordaunt admitted to Strangford’s Democratic Unionist MP, Jim Shannon, that the size of an infantry battalion has shrunk under the Tories. In 2010, it was 570 soldiers. Today, it’s 530. The mini-battalions camouflage deeper military cuts.

It’s a coincidence, I’m sure, that, in the year of the Labour contest, all members in Yorkshire and Humberside were invited to the annual garden party held by Yvette Cooper’s Normanton local party and that of the Morley constituency of her election victim hubby, Ed Balls. My snout attended the event, at the couple’s Castleford home, which included a bouncy castle, tug of war and live music. Gastronome Balls took the tongs at the barbecue.

The couple are very popular and the image of Balls as a pantomime villain is one of the great misrepresentations of modern politics. Unlike Cameron, he doesn’t stop flipping burgers when the cameras leave.

The award for the best quip at the Labour hustings goes to Tom Watson. He’d prefer not to be Corbyn’s deputy, to avoid the Tory press mocking them as Tom and Jerry.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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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.