David Cameron and Angela Merkel attend a meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on March 21, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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It's a myth that Britain is sleepwalking towards Brexit

With the young most in favour of EU membership, euroscepticism faces death by demographics.

Britain is sleepwalking towards Brexit. That's increasingly the verdict of the commentariat, anyway. In today's Times, Dominic Cummings argues that "Voters don’t believe the prime minister when he says he’ll get a better deal for Britain in Europe". Last week, Matthew Parris wrote "Have no doubt. We’re heading for an EU exit". Matthew argued that "Britain is heading for the exit. Something seriously impressive has to be achieved to change our course." 

The rationale is simple. As Vernon Bogdanor warned in a recent lecture“Don’t imagine that Mr Cameron can pull off Harold Wilson’s trick a second time.”

Mr Wilson managed to convince the public that he had secured a triumphant renegotiation before the 1975 referendum, when he had done nothing of the sort. With the political class having never been held in more contempt - and the "Yes" camp in any referendum in 2017 certain not to enjoy the nine-to-one funding advantage that the pro-EU forces did 39 years ago - Mr Cameron would face a much more onerous task. Professor Bogdanor notes a Gallup poll in January 1975 showing a narrow majority in favour of leaving, while 71% said they would prefer to stay “If the Government negotiated new terms for Britain’s membership of the Common Market" - something that closely resembled the final result. "People could be greatly influenced by what the political leaders, in particular the leaders of the Labour Party, said". The implication is that the same is not true today.

But here's the thing: even if Professor Bogdanor is right, it won't matter. The polls tell us that Mr Cameron doesn't need to pull off Mr Wilson's trick. A YouGov survey last week, showed support for remaining in the EU at its highest level under the current government. The public suggest they would still listen to the advice of the government - there is a 35% lead in favour of staying in the EU in the event of Mr Cameron recommending that Britain does so. Yet, even without one, staying in is the preferred option: 44% would vote to remain in the EU, compared to 36% who would sooner leave. 

Even if the public were to ignore Mr Cameron's advice, he has already made his greatest contribution to the pro-EU cause. The near five-year gap between his pledge to hold an in-out referendum and the date when this would be amounts to a bump of several points for the "Yes" camp.

That's because of demographics. The generational divide among voters has never been starker than on Europe. The younger they are, the more Europhile they come. Today. only the over 60s support Brexit. Remaining in has an 8% advantage with 40-59-year-olds (even without a recommendation from the PM) - and it rises to 30% among the under-25s. While Britain has an ageing population, this is not, crudely put, enough to make up for the Eurosceptics who are passing away, because those who have been at university, studied abroad and always remember Britain being part of the EU tend to stubbornly cling onto pro European beliefs.

The upshot is simple. Every day that Britain waits for an referendum on its membership of the EU, remaining in becomes a more likely course. Unless opponents of the EU can locate a message that resonates with the young - nay, make that anyone under 60 - euroscepticism faces defeat by demographics. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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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.