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Exclusive: Owen Smith: I am interested in being Labour leader

Shadow work and pensions secretary says it would be "an incredible honour and privilege" to do the job. 

Owen Smith has become the first shadow cabinet member to state his interest in standing for the Labour leadership. In an interview with the New Statesman, the shadow work and pensions secretary said it would be "an incredible honour and privilege" to do the job. Smith, the MP for Pontypridd since 2010, has been spoken of by colleagues as a possible "soft left" successor to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Asked whether he would stand in the future, the former shadow Welsh secretary said: "I don’t think there’s any vacancy right now. But I think any politician who comes into this to want to try and change the world for the better, starting with their own patch and working outwards, I think they’re either in the wrong game or fibbing if they don’t say, 'if you had the opportunity to be in charge and put in place your vision for a better Britain would you take it?' Yeh, of course, it would be an incredible honour and privilege to be able to do that." 

Smith emphasised, however, that he expected Corbyn to lead Labour into the 2020 general election and offered a more unambiguous endorsement than some of his shadow cabinet colleagues. "Jeremy is going to lead us into the election, he’s the leader of the Labour Party ... He’s said very, very clearly that he wants to take us into the next election, he won a stonking great majority. Jeremy is going to be taking us into the election in 2020. End of." In a recent interview, Angela Eagle, the shadow business secretary, refused to say that Corbyn should remain leader until the election.

Elsewhere in the interview, Smith said that Labour should remain a "broad church" but did not criticise the sacking of former shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher and shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden. "I think that’s for the leader, to be quite honest, I really do. It’s not for me. He could sack me tomorrow and therefore that makes clear what my position is. I’m someone who serves in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, they were people who served on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench, I think they’re both talented politicians, very talented, I think they’ve got a lot to give to the Labour Party, I’m sure they will do in future, they’re also friends of mine.

"Being sacked from any job is never a nice thing and I’m sure they’re both mightily cheesed off about it. Jeremy won and is within his rights to have a reshuffle and we’ve just got to move on. I know those two individuals who are both very experienced, mature, serious politicians will pick themselves up and move on and do what they come into politics for which is to improve the lives of their constituents and their communities." 

Smith announced that he would soon begin a review of social security policy for the party. Corbyn has pledged to abolish the household benefit cap but Smith said that the current limit of £20,000 (£23,000 in London) should be reformed, rather than scrapped. "We’re in favour of there being a measure that would guarantee that you couldn’t have unlimited benefits for one household, I think there has got to be some means of doing that," he said. He added: "It's becoming increasingly evident, in my view, that the current cap that we’ve got doesn’t work, doesn’t reflect what they originally said, isn’t getting people back into jobs, isn’t saving money and therefore we’ve got to be confident enough to say if this thing isn’t working why should we simply row in behind it?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.