A barnacle named Lynton

The Tories say Labour are wasting their time attacking the PM's campaign strategist. Well, they would, wouldn't they.

David Cameron doesn’t like being asked if he discussed government plans for plain cigarette packaging with his campaign strategist Lynton Crosby. He maintains that he was not “lobbied” on the subject. In an interview on the BBC’s Marr show this morning, he added that Crosby does not formally advise on that kind of issue and didn’t “intervene.” Cameron’s critics are quick to point out how carefully those words are chosen. They don’t amount to a denial that the two men talked about the measure.

It is Crosby who is reported to have advised the Prime Minister to “get the barnacles off the boat” - stripping away from the Tory agenda anything that gets in the way of the core message. That requires jettisoning most policy that isn't dealing with the deficit, controlling immigration and reforming welfare. On those terms, legislating for plain cigarette packaging was an obvious barnacle.

Labour’s contention is that Crosby’s main line of work is lobbying – he is currently contracted to do just one day a week in Downing Street – that his big money clients have included Philip Morris, who would prefer to shift tobacco in non-plain packaging, and that, by extension Cameron has imported a whopping conlfict of interest into the heart of government. The dots are close enough to be joined by anyone predisposed to think the worst of the Prime Minister (and he has form when it comes to careless appointments). But there is not, as Tory MPs are eager to point out, a “smoking gun.”

Most Conservatives insist that Labour are wasting their time hammering away at the Crosby connection. The man is neither famous nor important enough to justify so much opposition energy, say MPs. The attacks, insist Tory spinners, look desperate and indicate that Ed Miliband is running out of political ammunition.

Yet Cameron looks tetchy when asked about the connection. In his Marr interview he ended up closing down the exchange with a blunt refusal to indulge the line of questioning any further. “That’s the answer you are getting,” he said. When a politician is more confident of his position he can filibuster indefinitely until the interviewer feels obliged to move on. Cameron’s inability to deploy that technique here suggests vulnerability. The Prime Minister doesn’t do a big Sunday morning interview to be asked about his staffing arrangements and whether he takes policy dictation from shadowy agents of corporate influence. That sort of chatter gets in the way of his core message. Crosby's commercial interests are not the most pressing issue facing the nation but they are still relevant to his role as a senior Downing Street advisor, which is why it was suddenly announced last week that he would stop work for other clients at the end of the year. That it had to be said at all indicates some recognition that the great master strategist is himself in danger of becoming a barnacle on Cameron's boat.

Crosby famously advises getting "barnacles off the boat."

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.