If David Cameron only entered politics now, would he even be a Tory?

Imagine Cameron had a successful PR career before standing as an MP – there’s every chance he’d feel more comfortable as a Lib Dem than a Conservative. Which grass roots movement would be more upset?

 

Over the last two weeks I’ve been wrestling with a couple of questions. Trouble is, I only have an answer for the first. Perhaps you could all help me with the second?

My first poser is this. Let’s imagine that David Cameron had not gone into politics when he did. Entranced by the magical world of PR, he eschewed the chance to be an MP to pursue a career in the media, but now, 20 years on and full of regret, he decided he would like to give it another go. Which party would he join?

Well, according to Conservative Home the achievements the current government should be most proud of – and therefore presumably most attractive to a prospective new recruit – are the Equal Marriage Act, protecting the International Aid budget and raising the income tax threshold to £10,000. You don’t have to be much of a student of politics to know that they are three core Liberal Democrat policies – and the comment section of the Conservative Home article would suggest that the Tory grass roots don’t have much time for them. But as the Tory party is now furiously laying claim to them, presumably Cameron is in fact, quite keen…

Then you think about the things David Cameron first cared about when he became Conservative leader – you remember, when he wanted everyone to hug a hoodie or a husky, when (on his election) Norman Tebbit described him as wanting to build a “New Modern Compassionate Green Globally Aware Party” (it wasn’t a compliment) and he ditched the Tory Torch for an oak tree . And you look at the Tory party now – pulled rightward by UKIP, anti wind farms, demanding marriage tax breaks and reductions in inheritance tax, – and you wonder how comfortable Cameron feels inside the party he leads. It’s not really the vision he started with, is it?

And now he must cast a glance at the Lib Dems – who originated those policies the Tory party now claims as their proudest achievement. Who remain passionate about the Green agenda Cameron once wanted to claim as his own . Whose leadership (much to the chagrin of the Lib Dem grass roots) appear to support all sorts of policies that Cameron apparently also  feels comfortable with, from Secret Courts to Press Regulation to Immigration.

And you wonder if the David Cameron who joined the Tories in his twenties would now look at the Lib Dems and the Tories, and find, perhaps to his surprise, that in fact he had rather more in common with the former than the latter.

Which brings me on to my second question, to which I have no answer. If indeed it is true that the current Conservative Prime Minister would today feel more comfortable in the Lib Dems than in his own party, who should be more alarmed about that fact – the Tory membership, or the Lib Dem grassroots?

 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.