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Labour's next leadership election will be about Europe, but don't bet on Clive Lewis just yet

Voting against Article 50 will keep in good standing with the membership, but further narrow his path to the ballot paper in the parliamentary Labour party. 

Clive Lewis’s off-again, on-again relationship with the Labour grassroots is on-again.  The shadow business secretary has vowed to vote against triggering Article 50 and resign from the shadow cabinet if needed, unless he is persuaded that the final bill avoids a hard Brexit. (He will still vote for triggering Article 50 at the second reading.)

For much of the lifetime of the Corbyn project, Lewis has been the preferred successor of many in the grassroots. He also enjoys the support of most of the small band of Corbynites in the commentariat. But in signalling he would vote to trigger Article 50, he opened up a potentially fatal breach between him and party members.

For the last 20 years, the Labour membership has been overwhelmingly pro-European, but only in the same sense that Britain is overwhelmingly a Christian country. Most might like the idea, some might even attend church at Christmas, but very few were genuinely devout.  That was why Corbyn – a lifelong Eurosceptic who voted against every single European treaty that came before the Commons in his time as an MP – was able to win a landslide victory in 2015 among a pro-European party, despite telling the New Statesman that he had not “closed his mind” to the possibility of voting to leave the European Union.

But the Labour grassroots is undergoing something of a religious revival as far as pro-Europeanism is concerned. I’m reliably informed that more than 7,000 people have quit the Labour Party in the last week over the party’s Article 50 stance. For many inside and outside Labour, supporting a Remain vote has become a proxy not just for how you feel about the EU but a wide swathe of issues: pro- or anti- immigration, for or against social liberalism, and so on.

A lot could happen between now and the next Labour leadership election, but, as things stand, voting against Article 50 looks to me to be a prerequisite for victory. For Lewis, there is the added risk that his marginal seat of Norwich South – which voted to Remain by a heavy margin – would almost certainly be lost if he voted to trigger Article 50. While many of the big beasts in the shadow cabinet – Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer, and Jeremy Corbyn himself – have large pro-Remain votes in their constituency, they have much bigger majorities and are therefore at less risk from a revolt of Remainers.

Whereas it would be brave, to put it mildly, for Lewis to vote to trigger Article 50. So the politics of voting against triggering it are fairly open and shut from Lewis’ perspective.

But I wouldn’t make him the frontrunner just yet. As Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying, the most important thing in politics is to be able to count. The numbers that matter as far as Lewis is concerned are 15 per cent – the number of people in the parliamentary Labour party who have to sign a candidate’s nomination papers – or, if the attempt to reduce the threshold succeeds, five per cent. Or, in whole numbers: 35 or 12 MPs respectively.  Although there are some Corbynsceptic MPs who are open to the possibility of a Lewis leadership, it is hard to plot a path to the ballot for him unless he is the designated successor of the party’s Corbynite wing.

As I wrote in November, Rebecca Long-Bailey, currently the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, is now widely expected to be the preferred successor come the next leadership election, for four reasons.  Over at PoliticsHome, Kevin Schofield tips her to receive a big job in the post Article 50 reshuffle.  The first is that she has a majority of 12,541, capable of surviving even a landslide. The second is that she has a record of proven loyalty, both to the leadership and to the trade union left. Her personal proximity to the trade union left is the third reason. The fourth reason is that there is an expectation that there will be an overwhelming pressure within the parliamentary Labour party that the next leader be a woman. It wouldn’t be wholly surprising if that results in an all-woman shortlist. 

If the support of the party’s Corbynites flows to Long-Bailey, it will be hard to plot a path to the ballot for Lewis as well. His situation at the moment looks to me very similar to Chuka Umunna’s; he had committed enough heresies to leave him without a base on the party’s soft left, but had not yet convinced the party’s Blairites that he was one of theirs. In the membership, if Lewis does vote against triggering Article 50, he could be almost anyone’s candidate. The difficulty is that can easily translate into to being nobody’s candidate. 

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.