The need for a centre party has been obvious since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party and the European Research Group started running the Tory Party. This has been the situation for three years. So why did the Magnificent Seven (now eight) and the Three Amigos choose now to defect to the Independent Group?

It has made it more difficult to argue for a sensible deal with the EU and put a People’s Vote off the table. Those positions now have the whiff of treachery for continuing Labour and Tory MPs who are about to make decisions affecting our country for decades to come.

At this of all times, we didn’t need the distraction of these defections, but they have happened, and we must examine why and what is the future for the Independents and Lib Dems, but first Brexit.


Next Wednesday is being built up as a decisive moment in the Brexit process. If Mrs May hasn’t wrung some concession on the backstop from the EU, we are told MPs will try to wrestle control from the government. Let’s wait and see. The Prime Minister is adept at running down the clock and it could happen again. In any event it will take more than a vote in the Commons for MPs to dictate to the government. A leading constitutional expert has pointed out that only Ministers can change the law and spend money.

However, it may be that by next Wednesday a codicil will be agreed with the EU which can qualify the open-ended nature of the backstop. That may split the European Research Group and will certainly attract Labour MPs who’ve been offered government money for their constituencies.


Wednesday saw me on the beach at Crosby filming a report for the BBC. We were looking back on the 1981 by election victory of Shirley Williams, the first by the Social Democratic Party who had begun the year in a similar way to the Independent Group. The SDP rapidly acquired Labour defectors. There must be something in the water in Liverpool and Stockport. The city provided three rebels 38 years ago whereas Luciana Berger is the only one for now. Ann Coffey has followed the same course in Stockport as her predecessor Tom McNally.

Roy Jenkins nearly won the Labour seat of Warrington in the summer, then came Williams triumph in the safe Tory constituency of Crosby in November.

If the Falklands War hadn’t massively boosted Mrs Thatcher’s popularity the following spring, who knows what might have happened to the SDP. In alliance with the Liberals they put up a good showing in the 1983 General Election but were punished by the first past the post system.

Relations between the SDP and Liberals were never easy and deteriorated after David Owen replaced Roy Jenkins as leader. The signs are not good this time around. The Independent Group have included the Lib Dems in their description of the parties that are “broken” and seem to think they should join the Independents. People like Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna need to remember where Owen’s arrogance led him. His rump SDP eventually got less votes in a Bootle by election in 1990 than the Monster Raving Loony Party.

There is a gaping hole in the middle of British politics, and it needs fresh ideas from the Independents combined with the nationwide structure of the Lib Dems to make it effective. Otherwise we’ll have Tory governments into the thirties.

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I am going to leave Brexit alone this week except to say I haven’t changed my view that Theresa May’s game is to run the clock down, rely on a last-minute concession by the EU and get her deal over the line. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn also wants to leave the EU, without being responsible for the “Tory Deal” damage that will ensue.

Tory and Labour Remainer MPs are being played for dupes, their strategy is confused and their agonising embarrassing; as is the continued speculation about a breakaway centre party. If it is to have any credibility, it won’t derive from London cocktail parties where they come up with the idea of JK Rowling becoming leader.


I did some work facilitating meetings of the talented rail engineers planning this massive scheme and shared their enthusiasm for it. It was a huge mistake to associate it with high speed when the real justification is that the West Coast mainline is at capacity for passenger and freight. However, Britain was at last going to match the French and Japanese in fast rail.

I would still like HS2 to go ahead but the daily misery being faced by passengers commuting in the North of England has forced me to conclude that the government may need to pause HS2 to invest massively on rail in the North. I don’t just mean connecting the big cities with Northern Powerhouse Rail but doing something about the chaos on lines between places like Flixton to Urmston highlighted on TV this week.

Transport for The North’s investment plan, recently revealed, should get urgent approval from however is going to replace the hapless Chris Grayling when he is removed as Secretary of State for Transport.

As I say I would like both projects to go forward, but the benefits of HS2 won’t be seen in the North until the 2030’s, whilst urgent investment in local rail would see improvements much sooner.

I acknowledge the improvements now coming on the Preston to Manchester link, but progress has been slow and the investment programme across the North needs a rocket boost to investment.

It is not acceptable for a heavily pregnant woman to have to miss three trains because of overcrowding on short formed services


Again, I must begin with a transparency notice, I have done webcast work for Lancashire fracking firm Cuadrilla.

I have found the government’s response to developments in the nuclear and gas industries in recent weeks very interesting.

The collapse of plans for three nuclear power plants because of the withdrawal of Japanese investment did not send ministers into tailspin.

Justified demands by Cuadrilla for the lifting of earth tremor restrictions at their Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire have been refused along with permission to drill at all at nearby Roseacre Wood.

Meanwhile the cost of renewable energy is plummeting. It suggests the government are pivoting to green energy solutions and it could mean difficult times for our nuclear and fracking companies.

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Valentine’s Day provides journalists with endless chances to write up next week’s Brexit developments as love ins or massacres. It will probably be neither as Mrs May continues to run down the clock.

The EU is rightly unlikely to cave in to demands by a faction of one party in Britain demanding that a guarantee against rampant smuggling across the Irish border should be indefinite if needed. They take that view both to protect the integrity of the Single Market and because they know that if they concede something to the European Research Group (ERG) of extreme Brexiteers, they will be back for more.

If only the People’s Vote/No To No Deal groups of MPs had half the organisational ability of the ERG! These MPs have been all over the place proposing different amendments. Tory Remainers couldn’t wait to scuttle back to party loyalty rather than press their case. Labour MPs attempt to walk the tightrope have alienated the vast number of Remain party members. Now several them are thinking of taking the Maygeld, being bought off with ill defined amounts of money for their left behind constituencies.

What a way to make regional policy! Mrs May has been distinctly cool on the Northern Powerhouse because it was the idea of her enemy George Osborne. We’ve also had a patchwork of Local Enterprise Partnerships, none of which have been as effective as the Regional Development Agencies. They were bodies that drove effective investment alongside the European Union’s regional funds. Sweep away the RDAs and EU and replace them with backroom deals between short sighted Labour MPs dealing with a Prime Minister who could be out on her ear within weeks.


So how is this all seen from a Lancashire business point of view? Downtown held an event this week in Preston where, not surprisingly, the main call was for certainty. The Tories should be worried about losing their reputation for being business friendly. There is a growing view that party interest is being put above the need for firms to make plans.

Our guest was Geoff Driver, the Conservative leader of Lancashire County Council. A marmite figure for sure, but one must marvel at his resilience. He has been under police investigation for five years, an intolerable period for anyone to endure, especially when you are leading a major county council.

Nevertheless, he was able to tell local businesses that a local resilience forum had been set up in the event of a No Deal Brexit. It was mainly focused on issues like the use of Heysham port, traffic congestion, and the need for EU care workers to continue to support the council’s Adult Services. Driver was in no doubt Brexit should be carried out or the consequences for democracy would be profound.

We covered several other issues including the Northern Powerhouse. Local Enterprise Partnerships and local council finance, but as ever Brexit crowds everything out in this blog and I will return to those topics in future weeks.

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The Prime Minister has shamelessly appeased her Brexiteer extremists and kept a form of her deal alive. She has been considerably assisted by Labour’s chaotic behaviour. The party is paying the price for having a leader who was a habitual rebel and cannot now develop a coherent policy on Brexit.

The big question is what will the European Union do now? They could stand firm. We should not underestimate the possibility that they will put their impressive unity and support for Ireland even above the damage they would suffer from a No Deal Brexit. The arrogance of Brexiteers who blithely say they will bend is distasteful.

They may well stand firm for now comforted by the fact that the Commons has taken a position that No Deal is unacceptable. The amendment lacked the compulsion of the proposal by Yvette Cooper, but it helps to remove the Brexiteers threat of No Deal. It leaves open the possibility that MPs would eventually seize control of the agenda from the government to prevent us exiting the EU in chaos on March 29th.

If that doesn’t happen and the real threat of exiting the EU without a deal persists into March, it is possible that Michel Barnier will produce a hi-tech solution from up his sleeve to avoid a hard Irish border, a legal codicil to stand alongside the Withdrawal Agreement or other concessions.

The problem is two groups of MPs at Westminster. The 100 strong Tory European Research Group have only lent their support to Mrs May. They will be hard to satisfy by any minor concessions the Prime Minister comes back with in mid-February. Don’t be surprised if another massive defeat awaits the government then.

The other problem is the Labour Brexiteers. 14 of them including Graham Stringer (Manchester Blackley), Laura Smith (Crewe and Nantwich) and Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) voted against an attempt by their colleague Yvette Cooper to eventually wrest control of the Brexit process from the government. They are working to a mandate given them by the British people nearly three years ago. Fair enough, all I would say is that much has changed since we were conned by threats of millions of Turks coming here and laughable promises about NHS spending.

The Labour problem is much wider than this group. There was chaos on Monday night over the party’s stance on the immigration bill. Yvette Cooper has looked far more credible as a leader of the Opposition than Jeremy Corbyn this week.

Another MP who has had a good week is Graham Brady. The Altrincham MP has sometimes appeared like a buttoned-up Tory boy who never said anything interesting. He rescued Mrs May this week and has been able to exercise some control over the parliamentary Tory Party, no mean feat.


I will develop this when Brexit gives me time but just to mark your card about Labour’s attitude to the Northern Powerhouse.

Oldham MP Jim McMahon is the Shadow Devolution Minister. At a conference last week, he suggested that his party’s policy on devolution would be built from the bottom up; from wards to councils to pan regional structures. He said we might hear less about the Northern Powerhouse.

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