Hancock’s Half Page

MORE NORTHERN AGONY

TIS THE SEASON TO WEEP.

Vast swathes of the north are to remain in virtual lockdown following the government’s latest change of course as it grapples with COVID-19. As the newly formed research group UnitedCity have said it is going to be “cataclysmic” for pubs and restaurants during what would have been their busiest time of the year.

The Tier 3 status was not unexpected as infection rates remain high, but business organisations are demanding more financial support and greater consistency. This must be right. Business is finding it very difficult to cope with the constant changes. Although a further review is promised for Dec 16th and there is the Christmas interlude; it looks as if the north is going to be under tough restrictions until Easter. Further financial support for the hospitality industry, in particular, is needed.

A word about Liverpool where Mayor Joe Anderson will have his critics for being the subject of more praise from Tory ministers.

Joe’s enemies need to reflect that there are fine margins here in terms of political tactics. Joe gets Tier 2 through cooperation; Andy Burnham is still in Tier 3 after a showdown with ministers.

CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE.

The new tier system is an immediate headache for business but this week it is vital to look at important developments which will frame our economic world for years to come.

The government deserves credit on a number of fronts. The change in the Treasury criteria for backing infrastructure projects is hugely significant. The north has lost out for years because its case for investment couldn’t deliver the immediate economic development available to London and the South East. Now civil servants will have to consider other criteria like the government’s levelling up agenda when deciding on projects.

Next Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary and Preston North MP. Westminster gossip had this affable and competent minister for the chop, no doubt because of lingering resentment that he had supported Remain in the referendum. Not only is Ben still in place but he has negotiated a £24bn four-year defence spending deal that will help with a vital industry in the North West.

There was also good news in the Chancellor’s statement about a UK Infrastructure Bank to be based in the north. But just when you think the government is getting the devolution message it decides to operate the levelling up fund centrally. That old begging bowl approach must go.

The Chancellor’s statement was as chilly as the Great Frost of 1709 when the economy was last in this state.

The government has been right to borrow these eyewatering amounts to support jobs and will need to do yet more (see above). However, the government must look to some level of prudence as it props up employment.

Therefore, I back the reduction in foreign aid. We will still be a generous contributor at 0.5% of GDP and we are better equipped than most to deploy our forces in the event of natural disaster. It must also be said that not all this aid has been spent well by recipient countries.

It has been a week of major developments across many fronts and we’ve had no chance to discuss the minor matter of a Brexit trade deal!

CUMMINGS WAS BAD FOR THE NORTH

CUMMING AND GOING.

Fears have been expressed that we’ve lost our northern champion at the heart of government with the departure of Prime Ministerial aide Dominic Cummings.

I disagree. What is needed to promote the levelling up agenda in Whitehall is a combination of a high-ranking member of the Cabinet, with the backing of the Prime Minister and the obedience of the anti-devolution civil service.

Cummings thought he could drive through the Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda by being insulting to MPs and civil servants. It was always going to end in tears.

NORTHERN POWERHOUSE.

Over the years we came closest to effective support for a regional agenda when the then Chancellor, George Osborne, invented the Northern Powerhouse. Prime Minister David Cameron was mildly supportive and for a while the civil service got on with building the infrastructure through elected mayors and limited investment to make it work. Then along came Theresa May. She wasn’t interested and three years were wasted.

ON THE LEVEL.

Boris Johnson won the General Election with extraordinary success in breaking down the northern wall and was more or less obliged to promise a levelling up agenda for the North. The pandemic has slowed that initiative which is perhaps understandable. What is less excusable is the inaction over the Shared Prosperity Fund whereby the UK government is meant to replace the current regional support given by the European Union to a host of projects in the north.

THE PRESCOTT PLAN

The biggest champion of the north was John Prescott who, in the late nineties, put in place regional development agencies (RDAs) backed by civil servants in regional government offices. He wanted to give the RDAs democratic responsibility and media profile by having elected regional assemblies.

This excellent framework was destroyed by Tony Blair and Dominic Cummings. Blair’s enthusiasm for devolution didn’t stretch beyond Scotland and Northern Ireland and he stymied the setting up of assemblies by requiring referendums. This played into the hands of a young activist, Dominic Cummings, who already had a contempt for elected politicians. Despite the fact that Prescott’s proposals would have swept away hundreds of councillors by creating unitary local government under the assemblies; Cummings mounted an effective, but dishonest, opposition campaign against an assembly in the North East by saying it would just mean an extra tier of politicians.

JAKE BERRY, THE NEW NORTH CHAMPION?

The Rossendale MP Jake Berry served for three years as Northern Powerhouse Minister and has now formed the Northern Research Group of MPs. They say they will hold the Prime Minister to his promises to level up the north.

These northern Tories know how desperate things are becoming with businesses folding under the pandemic pressure and people getting more and more frustrated with the government’s mishandling of the crisis whilst it indulges in Downing Street faction fighting.

Meanwhile Ministers have work to do to repair relations with the only tangible signs of regional power, the elected mayors.

I have issues with the mayoral model over the regional one. For instance, the saga over a housing plan for Greater Manchester. However, these mayors are champions of their patches, as long as they don’t get stroppy, as Andy Burnham showed the other week.

The demand for more devolution for the north is growing as the pandemic goes on. We will see if Whitehall finally gets it.

THE VACCINE AND BUSINESS.

A SLOW IMPACT.

The euphoria over the discovery of an effective vaccine is understandable. It is also overdone, particularly in relation to business in the North.

The rollout of the vaccine is going to be one of the biggest logistical exercises we have ever seen. I am sure everyone will do their best, but the government have not developed a good track record in this crisis. Whether it be the delivery of protective clothing in the early stages of the pandemic, through test and trace, to the provision of computers to home working poorer pupils, performance has been patchy.

Quite rightly the elderly and vulnerable will be first in the queue to be vaccinated, but this won’t immediately answer the demand of business, particularly hospitality, to open up.

The Prime Minister is under enormous pressure not to extend the lockdown into the weeks before Christmas, but many restrictions on business are likely to remain while the vaccine roll out makes inevitably slow progress through an adult population of 52 million people.

Meanwhile the economic cost of the pandemic on the northern economy is becoming clearer. The Northern Health Science Alliance led by scientists from leading northern universities says 2020 has seen an exacerbation of regional inequalities. They estimate that increased mortality has cost nearly £7bn and the impact on mental health around £5bn.

The government says it is still committed to the “levelling up” agenda, but it is hard to see progress amidst the blizzard of bad news coming from the pandemic. The scientists say levelling up would be assisted by a number of measures including giving more resources to local councils and health authorities to do a better job than central government on track and trace.

Ministers point to the £30bn job scheme and other measures. It is likely that the pandemic will have cost us £40bn, twice the economic crash of 2008 and the government can’t rely on extremely low borrowing rates for ever. Nevertheless, extra Tory seats were won in the North last December and promises were made.

Commenting on the report, Miranda Barker of the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce raised another issue that is fast coming down the track for northern businesses…. Brexit.

In seven weeks, the transition period is over. I stand by my forecast that a deal will be done. I am reinforced in that view by the likelihood that the new Biden administration would not be impressed with a no-deal bust up between the UK and Brussels. Even with a deal at this late stage, it is bound to be a difficult time for business coping with the extra bureaucracy that this foolish move to leave the EU will bring.

THATCHER’S LONG SHADOW.

It is thirty years ago that Margaret Thatcher was brought down by her own MPs.

Despite the passage of time, the drama of her fall from power still resonates. I was a reporter at Granada at the time and it was one of the most dramatic political stories I covered. From the straws in the wind provided by the stalking horse challenge of backbencher Sir Antony Mayer, through the search for a North West Tory who would go on the record against her (Crosby’s Malcolm Thornton did the job on Runcorn station) Then we had the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, the power play by Michael Heseltine, the surprise victory of the dull John Major and Thatcher’s  tearful farewell in Downing Street.

Six men and one woman have led the Tory Party since but none have quite escaped her shadow.

BAD WEEK FOR THE BLUSTERERS.

JUST JIM 424

BAD LOSER

As I write it looks likely that Donald Trump will lose the Presidency of the United States. Meanwhile in Britain, Boris Johnson becomes more miserable by the day after a humiliating U turn on lockdown when faced with the second wave of the pandemic.

It is possible that late votes or outrageous legal action could still see Donald Trump in the White House but presuming this does not happen, let us welcome the quiet civilised Joe Biden to the job he has sought for thirty years. His first task will be to restore some dignity to the office of President. Trump besmirched it from beginning to end of his four years in office.

Remember the silly row about how many people had turned up to his inauguration? It created a theme of flagrant denial of the facts, an alternative truth as one Trump supporter put it. It continued all the time until the disgraceful denouement this week where Trump gave a new meaning to the term, bad loser.

The President claims to be a true supporter of ordinary hard-working Americans who are despised by the Washington elite. It hasn’t stopped him implying that thousands of people who volunteered to count the massive number of votes into the early hours, of being incompetent or part of some fantasy fraud to deny him four more years. The officials in charge of the counts should have been far more critical of this outrageous slur against their staff.

But this is not just farcical behaviour on behalf of the President, it is dangerous too. Shops are boarded up against civil unrest. We shall see how the next few days play out.

Celebration of Joe Biden’s expected victory has to be muted however. The oldest man to take the office of President comes with no coat tails. The Senate is expected to remain in Republican hands and Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives. Despite everything he has done, Donald Trump got more votes this time than in 2016. The truth is millions of Americans share his values. Obamas’ election may have been a liberal aberration. It is going to be a hard country to govern.

It was another bad night for the pollsters. Just as in Britain, they seem to be unable to reflect Republican/Conservative support. There is growing evidence that many of these voters are shy or afraid to indicate their support for a right-wing candidate. We will need to bear that in mind here as the next election approaches.

BITTER LOCKDOWN.

Meanwhile here the latest lockdown has been greeted with bitterness, despite the Chancellor’s further economic support measures today. Many businesses are on their knees, people with elderly parents openly distressed, youngsters upset they can’t play football.

However, although the rules are badly drawn,it was the right decision, taken too late. Johnson looks increasingly depressed at the prospect of his premiership being defined by COVID-19.

Meanwhile Kier Starmer has enhanced his position considerably. He called for this lockdown early and his action over Jeremy Corbyn was right. He should not pay attention to the threats of the hard left. It may well be that by 2024,British voters may be crying out for a calm, dull decent man to be Prime Minister.