Labour leadership: Andy Burnham says he will bring Ed Miliband into his team if elected

Former frontrunner says it is 'a bit of a stretch' to see Jeremy Corbyn as PM

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Indy Politics

Ed Miliband could make a swift return to frontline politics if Andy Burnham wins the Labour leadership race, the shadow Health Secretary has revealed. Mr Burnham told The Independent on Sunday he would “certainly” talk to Mr Miliband about joining his shadow Cabinet, should he beat veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn next month.

In a wide-ranging interview, the 45-year-old, who was the frontrunner until Mr Corbyn unexpectedly set the race alight, said:

His shadow Cabinet “would be as one” in campaigning to stay in the EU in the in/out referendum – which would almost certainly result in Mr Corbyn being excluded from his frontbench;

It was “a bit of a stretch” to see Mr Corbyn as Prime Minister;

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Mr Miliband quit the leadership in May after Labour was reduced to just 232 seats – its fewest since 1987

He would not allow his name to be used as a stalking horse by MPs plotting to force an immediate second election should Mr Corbyn prove victorious;

He would not mount a legal challenge if he loses, despite calling on the party to increase efforts to root out Conservative “entryism” – Tories who have registered to vote in the contest;

This leadership election had been “more factional” than the one he contended in 2010;

That he was in a “no-win” situation when abstained over welfare cuts – the moment, he concedes, that sent Mr Corbyn’s campaign into overdrive.

Mr Miliband quit the leadership in May after Labour was reduced to just 232 seats – its fewest since 1987. But Mr Burnham said he would “of course” approach Mr Miliband about a possible return by next year. “I’m somebody who respects him greatly. I’d certainly talk to him about it [a shadow Cabinet post].”

Mr Burnham argued that Labour supporters have moved back to him in recent weeks after a manifesto that included the populist measure of renationalising the railways. The bookies disagree – Paddy Power paid out on a Corbyn victory last week.

The Cambridge-educated Merseysider is now putting the EU referendum, expected next year, at the centre of his campaign, arguing his shadow Cabinet would be steadfastly pro-European.

“The Labour party can’t equivocate at all,” he said. “To allow any doubt a year away from a referendum would be to make a major mistake.  And some ambivalence has been left hanging – that’s not helpful for the party and probably not for the country either.”

Mr Corbyn has yet to commit himself to campaigning for an “out” vote, but he is eurosceptic and recently wrote that the EU is “too beholden to corporate interests”. Last month, Mr Burnham hinted he might offer Mr Corbyn a frontbench role, but insisted: “No one’s said he would be appointed [to the shadow Cabinet]. I would want to involve him in my team. I haven’t yet said exactly what role people would hold.”

Mr Burnham dismissed claims that he is an “appeaser” for admitting he would accept a shadow Cabinet position under Mr Corbyn – rivals Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall have said his views are too left-wing for them to join his frontbench.

MPs are considering triggering a fresh contest putting forward a rival candidate as soon as Mr Corbyn is elected – under party rules 20 per cent of the party, or 47 MPs, would have to sign up to the plan. But Mr Burnham would not agree to be that candidate, insisting this is “definitely” the last time he is standing – he finished fourth in 2010.

He did, however, admit that he could not see Mr Corbyn seizing Number 10 in 2020, alluding to suggestions the 66-year-old could stand down in 2017 or 2018 in favour of a younger, more electable left-winger. “That [Mr Corbyn as Prime Minister] takes a little bit of a stretch, I think. Anybody can grow into a job I suppose. It’s not something I think he is necessarily sure about.”

Mr Burnham was speaking on Friday, hours after complaining of Tory infiltration of the contest – around 3,000 applications, including members of the hard left as well as Conservatives, have already been rejected for attempting to register under false pretences. Conservative MP Tim Loughton attempted to register – largely to vote for Mr Corbyn, who they think would trigger a Tory landslide in 2020.

Mr Burnham’s campaign manager, Michael Dugher, has written to Labour general secretary Iain McNicol demanding an urgent meeting with all the leadership teams over the issue. A meeting will be held on Tuesday, but Mr Burnham insisted he would not mount a legal challenge if he loses.

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Yvette Cooper, right, has challenged Andy Burnham, left, to pull out of the Labour leadership contest, as she accused him of being too similar to front-runner Jeremy Corbyn

Mr Burnham’s and Ms Cooper’s teams have clashed. The shadow Home Secretary’s camp demanded he quit the race, even though he is acknowledged to be in second place. Mr Burnham’s camp accused Ms Cooper of using tactics “out of the Ed Balls playbook” – a reference to her husband, the former Shadow Chancellor.

“This one [contest] has felt more factional to me,” he said, blaming the sniping that comes with Twitter. “Some of the language has been a bit heated at times. It [social media] has changed the character of this race.”

Insisting he had run a “positive” campaign, Mr Burnham nevertheless risked stoking further rows with Ms Cooper and Ms Kendall by claiming that only he and Mr Corbyn had presented the party with “visions of substance”.

Mr Burnham admitted his decision to abstain on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill last month, which would cut spending by £12bn, was “the point at which the race changed” in favour of Mr Corbyn, who voted against. The decision to abstain was made by acting leader Harriet Harman; Mr Burnham claims he argued against the policy in a shadow Cabinet meeting.

“Unlike Jeremy I’m bound by collective responsibility that comes with being a member of the shadow Cabinet. If I had resigned and led my supporters through the lobby, I’d have been acting out of character to try and win the Labour leadership.

“I believe I can win, and, indeed, I believe I will win.”

Burnham's thumbs up for the 'Milibeard'

Andy Burnham might want Ed Miliband in his team – but the man who would be Labour’s king was unaware of the biggest story in Westminster: The Milibeard.

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Ed Miliband is spotted with a beard

Asked what he thought of his former leader’s nascent muttonchops, sported by Mr Miliband while on holiday in Australia, Mr Burnham turned to his adviser and gasped: “What? Ed M? How have I missed that?”

Shown the picture, Mr Burnham gave Milibeard the thumbs-up: “I think it suits him. Very trendy, very hipster.”

But, having been dubbed a “Thunderbird” thanks to his luxurious eyelashes, Mr Burnham ruled out growing a chin curtain: “I’m not sure facial hair is my forte, I get enough comments about my eyelashes.”

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