MAY STILL STANDING

REBEL LABOUR MPs COULD HOLD KEY

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.

NORTHERN POWERHOUSE UNDER LABOUR.

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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STATE OF THE NORTH PART 1.

POWERHOUSE OFF THE RAILS

Early next month the movers and shakers of the Northern Powerhouse (NP) will meet in Gateshead for the first Northern Convention. Its aim will be to inject some impetus into the badly stalled project.

The loss of its champion, George Osborne, at the highest level of government, the distractions of Brexit, the rise of the Midlands Engine have all contributed to a sense that NP amounts to lots of fine words and little action to help people and business.

Connecting the close, but isolated, northern cities was at the heart of the NP vision. Transport for the North has been created and is doing good work. However, any good news from that area has been completely overwhelmed by the awful experiences of train passengers this summer on the northern networks. It is not just rail. Having been stationary on the M6 last week for two hours, my impression is that our motorways are getting worse not better.

Next month’s Northern Convention has a big job to do to address the cynicism that surrounds devolution after the rail debacle. Its vision is wider than the Northern Powerhouse which has tended to focus on the urban strip from Liverpool to Hull. It wants to speak for the whole of the North, including Tyne and Wearside, with a clear message to London that much more needs to be done to redress the imbalances in the English economy.

This week and next I’m going to take a look at the State of the North. I’ll begin with an area that is sometimes overlooked, but not by Downtown in Business which has recently set up a new network in Chester.

According to the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, the sub region has a £29bn economy. It has the second highest Gross Value Added outside London. It has 25% of the North West’s manufacturing output and more graduate level jobs than anywhere in the North.

There is a belief that Cheshire is a dormitory for Manchester and Liverpool. In fact, according to the LEP, more people travel to work in Cheshire and Warrington than go to the cities. The sub region is strong in manufacturing, life sciences, energy, chemicals, business services and (particularly in Warrington), distribution.

There are challenges. A lack of the right skills, congestion and lack of housing at the right price. There are plans for 127,000 new homes.

The three major conurbations are all faced with the challenges of the retail revolution but have business plans for the future. In the case of Crewe, they will play a central role in the Constellation Project which is focussed around the arrival of HS2. Warrington has its New City plans and Chester’s £300 million Northgate scheme will deliver a mix of retail, restaurant and leisure facilities.

There is still no sign of a Combined Authority for this sub region. There have been issues around an elected mayor and the politics are difficult. Cheshire East is a solidly Conservative council recently wracked by officer turmoil. Cheshire West and Chester is finely balanced with Labour in control at the moment. Labour chiefs in Warrington say they can see the benefits of a Combined Authority but remain confident they can progress without one.

So that’s the picture in the south west corner of the Northern Powerhouse. Next week I’ll look at the rest.

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NORTHERN POWERHOUSE DERAILED

THE RHETORIC AND THE REALITY

The key question for the Northern Powerhouse concept is this, how can all the fancy talk about vision for the future economic prosperity of the North have any credibility when chaos and suffering is the every day experience of train and car drivers?

I was looking forward to hearing Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, speak at a major transport conference I attended this week in Manchester. He didn’t turn up because the government chose to hold the vote on the third runway at Heathrow on Monday. Two things about that. The debate didn’t have to be on Monday and the symbolism of yet another major London transport project getting the Transport Secretary’s attention ahead of coming north seems to have escaped him.

At least Grayling was present for the Heathrow vote. Boris Johnson’s escape to Afghanistan when he had promised to lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop the runway being built, must surely have irreparably damaged this buffoon’s chances of being Prime Minister.

Government presentation managers might think they are being clever by convenient management of Ministers diaries, but they aren’t. Grayling’s replacement at the conference Baroness Sugg is the aviation minister. She spoke for ten minutes, wouldn’t take questions and left. It says it all.

Northern Rail also ducked the conference. Its boss, David Brown, has been a rising star in the northern transport world. His reputation is now in jeopardy.

The various absentees left an open goal for the mayors of the two North West Metro Regions. Steve Rotheram said people could be driven off the trains for good. The Liverpool Metro mayor turned his attention to Network Rail. Their failure to complete the electrification of the Manchester-Blackpool line was a key factor in the chaos. He said their structure was opaque and not fit for purpose.

Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) said a Mayoral Transport Board had been set up with Network Rail and Highways England to try to bring some accountability but then he came to the central point of all this. How can the Northern Powerhouse have credibility when this chaos is going on? Burnham said the progress of four years ago was going backwards.

Although there are many organisations to blame for the intolerable rail chaos that seems to be easing at last, the buck stops with the government. Whitehall has failed the North over transport for decades over investment in electrification, coaches and stations. Northern Powerhouse devolution has given some responsibility to Transport for the North and Transport for Greater Manchester, but the Transport Secretary is still involved in major decisions like cancelling electrification between Manchester and Leeds and the Ordsall Curve scandal. The promised platform improvements at Piccadilly were cancelled by Mr Grayling, massively reducing the effectiveness of the new link to Victoria station.

There are suggestions the rail chaos will rumble on until November when the inquiry into the fiasco will report. What’s the betting that the report will just lead to buck passing when what we need is urgent action before the Northern Powerhouse becomes an empty joke.

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UNI’S NOT WHAT IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE.

 

THINK TANK BACKS DEGREE APPRENTICESHIPS

Downtown is always ahead of the game, so this week even before George Osborne identified educational attainment as the biggest issue in the North-South divide, a Manchester Downtown event had the benefit of an interesting debate about education. Our guest was Henri Murison. He heads up Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) think tank. Osborne has focused on the poorer attainment record of kids in the North compares with the South.

Our debate looked at the next stage. Should school leavers choose university or the alternatives of vocational or degree apprenticeships? If I was in charge of one of our traditional northern universities I would be worried. “Go off to university and accumulate some debt” wasn’t always the best advice. Many employers in the room would encourage youngsters to particularly look at degree apprenticeships. Combining on the job working with part time study, students had the advantage of becoming job ready and avoiding the growing burden of tuition fees. It was felt it might also help prevent the talent drain to the south on the basis that if someone was learning a trade with a northern employer, they were more likely to stay after they had qualified. Murison warned that the South East would become even more aggressive at pulling talent down the M6 (and eventually HS2) in the post Brexit world when the migrant labour the South East relied on became scarcer.

The meeting also took stock of progress with the Northern Powerhouse. Murison admitted there had been something of a vacuum after George Osborne had left office. The NPP had been set up to keep the flame alive. Osborne’s speech on the pupil attainment divide on Thursday was part of that.

Transport for the North has been the most obvious manifestation of the Northern Powerhouse so far but there’s a growing feeling that people need to be skilled up as well as connected up and the former needs greater priority than it has been getting.

I wish the Northern Powerhouse well but still think its priorities and organisation needs the transparency and profile an elected Northern Council would give it.

BACK OFF ABLE WOMEN LEADERS.

100 years ago next week women got the vote. There will be lots of debate in the next few days about what difference that has made to politics and wider public life.

We will perhaps conclude that women have still got to fight all the way for their rights. The controversy over equal pay for BBC editors, the President’s Club scandal and Manchester Council rightly acting to stop women having to walk the gauntlet of pro life campaigners shows there is much to be done.

Life remains tough for women in politics. Mrs May continues to be hounded by Brexit extremists. My feeling is that the public see a woman trying to do her best in difficult circumstances. Then we have Claire Kober, one of the few women leaders of a local council (Haringey) resigning, complaining of Corbynista sexist bullying.

Left and Right, shame on your both.

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