THIN PICKINGS FOR NORTH IN RESHUFFLE.

 

 

McVEY SOLE NORTHERN CABINET MINISTER

It’s a good job Justine Greening threw her toys out of the pram, or the North wouldn’t have a single Cabinet Minister after the reshuffle.

The refusal of the former Education Secretary to move to head up the Department for Work and Pensions meant a quick call to Esther McVey to take the post. It’s been quite a roller coaster for the glamourous former TV presenter whose scouse accent makes a welcome change from the plummy voices of the Eton crowd that are still well represented in the Cabinet.

She lost her Wirral West seat in 2015 after a nasty personal campaign by Labour, but replaced George Osborne as MP for Tatton last June. Within months she was appointed Deputy Chief Whip and now she’s in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. But she wasn’t the first choice for the job which raises the probability that the Prime Minister originally thought it alright, in a Cabinet of 22 people, to have none from a North of England constituency.

The lower ranks have few northern representatives. The Preston North MP Ben Wallace had claims on a Cabinet place but remains as Security Minister and former Trafford Council Leader Baroness Williams retains a high-profile Home Office role in the Lords. Rossendale’s Jake Berry remains Northern Powerhouse Minister, which is a welcome surprise as the holder of that post usually changes with each reshuffle. Finally, we have Andrew Stephenson (Pendle), Paul Maynard (Blackpool North) and David Rutley (Macclesfield) as middle ranking whips.

Nothing for a quartet of able North West Tories, Mark Menzies (Fylde), William Wragg (Hazel Grove), David Morris (Morecambe) and Seema Kennedy (South Ribble).

In fairness we should not overlook the fact that Altrincham’s Graham Brady remains chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers. I saw him on the fringe of the Tory conference in Manchester last autumn. Brady has never been a headline seeker but clearly gave me the impression that he knows the fundamental problem the Tory Party has with its top down organisation and lack of appeal to young people. We’ll see if the new chair, Brandon Lewis, makes a difference.

As to the reshuffle itself, one is left asking what was it for? There remains a pressing need to remove Boris Johnson, who has shown himself unfit to hold the serious office of Foreign Secretary. However, if the Prime Minister is too weak to do that, why raise expectations of major changes which remain unfulfilled? Some able women are on their way up. Keep your eye on Clean Energy Minister, Claire Perry, for instance, but overall there is a sense that little has changed, and some unfortunate errors have been made. Why was the Business Secretary Greg Clarke undermined with talk that he would be sacked? He is one of the more able members of the Cabinet as was demonstrated when he helped set up the Northern Powerhouse.

As I discussed last week there is a need to look beyond Brexit to the domestic agenda where Labour could expose the government’s weak flank. There are signs that Mrs May is taking steps to do this. Changes in job descriptions count for nothing in themselves but adding “Housing” to the title of the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid and “Social Care” to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s job description shows where the government intends to act. The “plastic” initiative by the Prime Minister is another attempt to get the young on board.

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AFTER BREXIT, A CORBYN GOVERNMENT ?

 

 

THE PEOPLE HAVEN’T RISEN UP.

At this turn of the year I wait in vain for any sign that the British public has changed its mind on Brexit in sufficient numbers to encourage a revolt amongst Remain parliamentarians.

So, in looking forward to 2018, I am forced to the depressing conclusion that the year will see some sort of deal hammered out to take us out of the EU, single market, customs union and all.

Without a public reaction against the fiasco unfolding before our eyes, the Tory rebels have only felt able to exercise their influence once. They got called saboteurs for their pains and are unlikely to use their influence again. Tory unity is an abiding reality. Remainers in the Labour Party feel similarly hamstrung by public opinion and the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has always seen the EU as a capitalist conspiracy. In any case he has other fish to fry as I discuss below.

The Liberal Democrats under the leadership of Vince Cable have so far shown themselves totally incapable of mobilising people for their Exit from Brexit campaign. 2018 might see the leadership contested between new Oxford West MP Layla Moran and Deputy Leader Jo Swinson.

The House of Lords will give the Withdrawal Bill a rough passage with courageous peers like Lords Adonis and Heseltine leading the way. However, they are likely to ultimately recognise that Article 50 had a big Commons majority and give way. The Brexit bullies will also threaten the Lords very existence if they don’t bend the knee.

Of most significance in all this is the change of tone coming from Europe. There is a sense that they’ve given up on this troublesome island and want to get the whole thing over with. Providing the terms don’t give encouragement to others to leave, a deal will probably be struck.

It is difficult to see how that will then pass through 27 parliaments and the European Parliament. It will depend how strong the mood is to make an end of the UK membership and move on to the other pressing issues the 27 face.

So, the message to businesses in the North is to prepare for increased costs, communication delays and more bureaucracy in our dealings with Europe and good luck with the search for those global markets.

AFTER BREXIT, PUBLIC SERVICES.

This year we will see a growing demand to get Brexit off the political agenda in order to tackle the huge domestic agenda that is building up. The NHS crisis, a lack of housing, the manifestations of poverty, elderly social care, rail and road congestion and the general post Grenfell distrust of institutions will crowd out Brexit eventually.

The country will be in a far worse place to tackle these issues after we are out of the EU. Watch as the EU membership contributions disappear into the Chancellor’s coffers. £350 million a week for the NHS? Don’t hold your breath.

In charge of dealing with these major social issues will be the Tories who, in 2018, will mark their eight years in power. Have they got the vision, will and energy to solve these problems? The chances are that this year we might begin to see what the post Brexit political landscape might be like. It could see the Tories blamed for Brexit and a greater faith in the radical socialist alternatives offered by Corbyn’s Labour Party.

After the next election we could see a weakened Britain deciding to pay high taxes to finance housing and social care with big cuts in defence including our nuclear deterrent. A flight of business and free market investment might be a price people will be prepared to pay.

OTHER MATTERS IN 2018.

After momentous elections since 2014, 2018 promises a quiet year on the election front in the North. Labour are already totally dominant here and even an all-out election on new boundaries in Manchester won’t change that.

We will have to look to the mid term elections in the United States for excitement. Will they produce sufficient Democrat victories to start a campaign in the Republican Party to deny Donald Trump a second term nomination ? Don’t bet on it, the economy is doing well, and Trump is delivering on some of his crazy policies to the delight of his supporters.

To brighten the gloom, we have a Royal Wedding and World Cup to look forward to although in the latter case the England team may darken our darkness.

Happy New Year!

 

 

2017 AND THE FOG OF UNCERTAINTY

 

NO WINNERS

For people planning the future of their businesses, 2017 has been a nightmare. While Cabinet members fought amongst themselves over whether to stay close to the EU post Brexit or take our chance on the world stage, firms had to try to plan. Political and business timetables don’t match. For instance, it might make great political drama if we are still negotiating at the last minute of the next EU deadline, but it is not how British business should be treated.

On top of the Brexit uncertainty, we had Theresa May’s opportunistic attempt to increase the Conservative majority. All the signs were in her favour when the local elections saw Labour controlling not a single county council. In the North this meant Lancashire returning to Tory control joining North Yorkshire and Derbyshire, the latter was once a strong Labour county.

But a few weeks later the combination of a disastrous Tory General Election campaign and a wholly unexpected youth driven surge for Jeremy Corbyn, saw a hung parliament elected. The most significant aspect of the General Election may turn out to be that it represented a return to two party politics. In 2017 the centre has not held to paraphrase W.B Yeats. The Lib Dems were defeated in places like Sheffield Hallam and Southport as both Labour and the Conservatives got over 40% of the vote each.

It was a troubled summer for Theresa may who faced much criticism for throwing away a working majority, but the autumn has seen a recovery in her position. Her spluttering performance at her party’s Manchester conference gained her some sympathy but there has been a growing sense that she is trying to bring coherent government to a Cabinet that is fundamentally split on what Brexit should mean. I never felt she was in danger of being kicked out purely because who would want the job of negotiating Brexit? Nor did I think there was any chance of another election. The Democratic Unionist Party will always side with the Tories when the chips are down. It has been little noticed that after having a hissy fit two weeks ago about the Irish border issue they settled for a solution that could leave them very much in line with the republic’s terms of trade.

2017 ends with the Conservatives running the country (as they usually do). The bitter divisions rarely lead them out of office so Corbyn shouldn’t hold his breath.

Many Labour supporters will regard 2017 as being a good year. I disagree. They didn’t win the General Election. They haven’t won a General Election for 12 years. But the misplaced euphoria around Corbyn has been followed by a systematic transformation of the party. Moderate Labour MPs are impotent while constitutional changes locally and nationally will embed the hard left for years to come. If there was an election now, Labour might win. But will the Corbyn bandwagon endure till 2022, the most likely date of the General Election?

So, a poor year for Labour and an even worse one for the Lib Dems, SNP and UKIP. There is an opportunity for the Lib Dems to rally the vast unrepresented centre ground, but they are just not taking it. They are partly hampered by the failure of moderate Labour MPs to realise that the game is up in their party. The SNP fell back at the hands of Ruth Davidson’s Tories. Perhaps Mrs May will stay on until she can hand on to the Conservatives third female leader? UKIP having caused all this Brexit chaos were wiped out under Paul Nuttall’s hapless leadership. But it is Nigel Farage that will go down in British political history as a man who made an enormous impact on the future of the country whilst never being elected as an MP.

In America Donald Trump took office, grasped Theresa May’s hand and then began to systematically demean the most powerful office in the land. As with May, don’t pay too much heed to talk that he’ll be out of office soon although there is a growing chance he’ll be denied a second term nomination by his party.

Finally, back to the North where we have seen the election of mayors in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region. Andy Burnham was only in office a few days before the awful Manchester Arena bombing. It was one of the many terrorist outrages that have reminded us this year that however much we talk about advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, there are people around who would take us back to the darkest periods of human existence on this planet.

Burnham rose to the occasion and at Downtown events with Steve Rotheram began to set out visions for the future. However, the success of northern devolution remains in the balance. It is threatened by a loss of momentum in the Northern Powerhouse project, government Brexit distraction and internal tensions in the city regions, Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Despite all that thank you for reading my blog during the year and a very happy Christmas.

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BUDGET BETTER GO WELL.

 

TAX AND SPEND

I think the fevered talk of plots to dislodge the Prime Minister is exaggerated. Whoever is PM on Brexit Day better stand by for massive criticism either for paying the Europeans too much or keeping us too close to the EU. Better to leave Mrs May to take the flack is surely the wise course for aspiring leaders. Reports that some Tory MPs want to go into opposition to refresh the party are ridiculous.

All that said the government is in a fragile state and is relying on Philip Hammond to deliver a good budget next week. I’ve got a lot of time for Phil The Till. When you look around the Cabinet table and see charlatans like Johnson and Gove, there is something reassuring about the grey man with his spreadsheets. He knows Brexit is a dangerous threat to the economy. He knows we are spending billions servicing our debts. Yet he is bated for exuding gloom when he should be apeing Johnson’s unfounded cheerfulness.

On Wednesday the Chancellor ought to loosen the purse strings to help with housing, the NHS, and elderly care. He needs to address our woeful productivity and skills record. But he should be bold enough to put up some taxes to pay for it and go back on a manifesto promise to raise the 40p income tax threshold to £50,000. The elderly should have to pay some National Insurance to begin the task of tackling intergenerational unfairness.

Unlike many commentators I don’t think a General Election is at all likely so now is the time in the political cycle to take a risk with incurring the wrath of those opposed to any tax rises.

But Phil Hammond faces strong opposition in his own party. Former Minister Nick Boles wants the Chancellor to scrap his deficit reduction target. He believes it is fine for the annual deficit to remain at 2.6% indefinitely. This in the face of an Institute for Fiscal Studies warning the deficit could be on course to be £20bn higher than expected by 2021/22.

GORDON BROWN.

The former Prime Minister has been in the North this week to boost sales of his memoirs. I had a lot of time for the granite integrity of this Scottish son of the manse. His one great achievement in No 10 was in October 2008 when he showed global leadership in the middle of the economic crisis.

His great flaw was his undermining of Tony Blair in his desire to be Prime Minister. Why did he want the job so badly? When he got it, he didn’t know what to do with it. Was he a continuity man for New Labour or something else?

He claims his differences with Blair were over policy and he had nothing to do with the personal attacks. The fact is Brown could have reigned in his spin doctors Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan who were constantly briefing against the Prime Minister.

Blair should have sacked Brown after the 2001 General Election, but it’s not just weak Prime Ministers who find it hard to dismiss troublesome Cabinet colleagues.

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