Burnham debating at The Cambridge UnionChris Williamson

“You know you’re back in Cambridge when you have to wear a dinner suit at strange hours of the day”, Andy Burnham quipped, as he arrived to speak to Cambridge Universities Labour Club (CULC).

He may have joked that he was “here to prove that there is life after a Labour leadership election”, but Burnham clearly had larger issues he wanted to raise with CULC members.

The most pressing of these was the EU referendum, where he stressed his desire for the ‘Remain’ campaign to “recapture the emotion behind the debate”; a debate in which, he claims, the ‘Leave’ campaign tends to “wrap themselves up in emotion”, appealing “to the baser instincts of the public, wrapped up in a red, white and blue flag”.

Burnham readily conceded that the EU has been “remote”, “arrogant”, and “anti-democratic” at times. However, he insisted that the “benefits of Europe are much bigger than the petty frustrations”, expressing a desire to return to “a social Europe, not an elite capitalist club”.

There was a clear sense of urgency in his discussion of the EU, not least in his claim that: “If I was to lay money on it now, tonight, I would bet that Brexit is going to win, and I don’t like saying that, but I feel that from talking to people in my own constituency”.

“The mood is not to stay in”, he added.

His speech was tinged with frustration as he insisted that it was “time to stop squabbling internally in the Labour Party”, as there are “bigger debates going on out there, and it’s about time we took part in them.”

This frustration mounted as he condemned these “squabbles” within Labour, arguing that it was “unforgivable” that they should “take precedence” over “bigger” issues, such as the referendum.

The Shadow Home Secretary also stressed the need he feels to “combine principle and idealism with practicability and pragmatism”, challenging those who would “condemn” his constituents who vote Labour to “five more years of the Tories” in 2020 by refusing to accept compromises that “marry principle with electability”.

For Burnham, “A Labour government of any complexion is infinitely preferable to a Conservative government.”

This sense of frustration with Labour, however, was not apparent when, after his CULC speech, Burnham spoke in the Presidential Debate at the Union.

Proposing the motion “This House Believes that the Conservatives have been Unfairly Demonised", ex-Conservative MP Jerry Hayes played into the public fascination with Burnham's large eyes when he claimed that being “mean” to him would be like “strangling the Andrex puppy”.  

Burnham, however, announced that “the Andrex puppy is going to go for the jugular”, and launched a spirited defence of Labour while condemning the manner in which he claims the current Conservative government has “deliberately sought to pick on the vulnerable to make their political points”.

When I spoke to him after the debate, there was a sense of resignation regarding his loss of the Labour leadership last September, noting that there was “a kind of yearning for something different, a kind of break from the sort of politics we had in the nineties”, which he characterised as “message driven, PR driven, spin driven”.

He acknowledged that “in the end, there was an almighty backlash to that.”

The surge in support for Corbyn is “a renewal moment, and bringing the new members in that you mentioned has got to be a good thing”, he claims.

“I hope they’re coming in to help Labour win elections, rather than just trying to fight factional battles internally”, he swiftly adds. “They’re not welcome if they’re coming to try and deselect people and stir up internal strife… It’s good largely, with that caveat.”

With regard to lowering the voting age, Burnham argued for a “much more ambitious program about how young people should be engaged in public life and politics, alongside giving them the vote… If [a 16-18 year old] can’t be a voter that governments have to worry about when they’re at the crucial stage of their life, then I think that is highly unfair”.

Inevitably, the conversation ultimately turned to the issue of Donald Trump. What does Burnham think of him?

“At that level of office – terrifying. And with hair like that, Christ almighty!”

However, in all seriousness, Burnham thinks that “politics is becoming more extreme, and that worries me. It feels like there’s an anti-politics mood around”.

“The fall guys are always the ones who try to reach out and make it work”, he added.

One is left wondering whether Burnham perhaps sees himself as such.

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