TURMOIL IN NORTHERN POLITICS

BURNHAM: LEADER OR SHOWBOATER?

Covid-19 has created the most turbulent situation in northern politics for a long time. Party loyalty, and the whole future of devolution is in the mix as the strain of the endless virus crisis takes its toll.

The turmoil has had its greatest expression in the tussle between Andy Burnham and Boris Johnson. The row over how much financial support for business was needed in a Greater Manchester Tier 3 regime came down to a £5m difference. The Mayor or the Prime Minister will one day face the blame for not bridging that tiny gap in the great scheme of things.

This row leaves opinion divided on the Mayor of Greater Manchester. According to a Downtown survey, he is the hero of most of our firms. Fighting the sub region’s corner, using local knowledge against central direction. This is what elected mayors and devolution were all about.

Except that it has exposed that when it comes to the crunch, Burnham does not have the power to defy central government. Ministers will now negotiate with any of the ten boroughs willing to get their hands on part of the £60m support package.

The Greater Manchester mayor is clearly not going to urge disobedience of the Tier 3 restrictions, but he is also the Police and Crime Commissioner. GMP were already facing a tricky job of enforcement of the regulations. It won’t be easy when a late night reveller tells a police officer that Andy Burnham doesn’t agree with all this.

Steve Rotheram was criticised by the hard left for earning the praise of Boris Johnson for doing a quick deal for the Liverpool City Region. He can live with attacks from some old Trots, but he has avoided the deep splits that have come in Greater Manchester.

TORY SPLITS.

This has been the most interesting division. I was in the Commons chamber when Hazel Grove Tory William Wragg launched a withering attack on Matt Hancock over his treatment of Greater Manchester. Afterwards we discussed if he was taking on the mantle of that historic thorn in Tory leaders’ side, Nick Winterton, the former MP for Macclesfield.

Wragg is not alone. Sir Graham Brady (Altrincham) has used his senior position as chairman of Tory backbenchers, to demand more parliamentary say on the Covid regulations. Chris Green (Bolton West) has not only supported Andy Burnham but has angrily attacked southern Conservative MPs who criticised their opposition to Tier 3 being imposed on Greater Manchester.

The Red Wall may have collapsed at the General Election, but it has inspired many northern Tory MPs to fight hard for the north’s interests.

This has been formalised by Jake Berry (Rossendale) forming the Northern Research Group of MPs. That word “research” echoes the European Research Group of Brexit hardliners who gave Mrs May such grief.

LABOUR NOT EXEMPT.

While this Tory turmoil has been going on, let’s note that Sir Keir Starmer’s measured approach to opposition is producing critics.

Rebecca Long-Bailey (Salford) wasn’t in his Shadow team for long. Then last week four other North West Labour MPs resigned positions over a government bill authorising illegal acts in the pursuit of covert intelligence. Starmer ordered abstention but Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West), Dan Carden (Walton), Kim Johnson (Riverside) and Nav Mishra (Stockport) quit their posts in protest.

The events of the last few weeks have once again raised major questions for the North. What is the reality of devolution? What is the future for the Northern Powerhouse and when will the “levelling up” promise be delivered?

THE NOW,AND THE FUTURE

THE DARK VALLEY.

In their desperation to get beyond the pandemic gloom, both the Prime Minister and American President want us to focus on the bright sunlit uplands that lie ahead.

The problem is that in Bolton and Baltimore, Liverpool and Los Angeles people are getting ill and businesses are being wrecked as their governments flail around for a solution to the here and now health emergency.

I forecast that the second lockdown would be an angry affair compared to the spirit of national unity that prevailed in the spring. People were always going to be more troubled. If they are younger because their freedom and education is rubbish, or if they are older, they feel the restrictions are not tough enough.

In this situation the government needs all the friends it can get. Instead it has failed to cooperate properly with northern local councils, health authorities and mayors. They have the local knowledge that could have finessed this second lockdown to mitigate the catastrophic damage that is being done to business without, it must be said, much effect on the spread of infection.

The mayors have now had enough of being ignored, but what they can do isn’t clear. This shows the limits of the partial devolution that they have been granted. Their other problem is that it isn’t clear exactly what Labour’s stance on all this is. Keir Starmer complains about details but, up to now, has always voted for the general thrust of government policy.

Ministers say this is a national problem requiring central action at speed. Two points about that. There is a sharp difference between the virus’ impact north to south. Also speed is not a virtue if it leads to mistakes that must be rectified.

Test and tracing are the alternative to the blanket measures that are set to come in next week. It is because the testing has been poor that we are all made to suffer.

THE SUNLIT UPLANDS.

So, in his virtual conference speech, the PM attempted to distract us from the present to contemplate a bright future under the Conservatives. The promise that by 2030 every home would be powered by wind generated electricity probably won’t be met. However, energy policy is moving in the right direction.

He renewed his pledge to deal with inadequate transport infrastructure. But the very next day comes news that the government are to prioritise the HS2 link to Manchester over Leeds. Lord Adonis speculates it will never be built. Whether that’s true or not, the decision smacks of an approach all too familiar to the North. Give them just enough to keep them happy, but never the broad generous vision that would have seen work going on in parallel.

Whether it was tackling the housing, skills, or social care crises, it would all be led by private enterprise.

Meanwhile Johnson’s counterpart in the States, who he resembles in so many ways, claimed if he could personally defeat Covid-19, then the American people have nothing to worry about.

I can’t wait for these two clowns to leave the stage. It was good to get back to sane politics with the Vice-Presidential debate between two normal people, just as it is to listen to the rational questions of Starmer instead of the bluster of Boris.

JOHNSON GLAD NOT TO BE IN BRUM.

VIRTUAL PROTECTION

If things had turned out differently, Boris Johnson would have been heading for Birmingham this weekend to celebrate his General Election victory and getting Brexit done at the Conservative party conference.

The Tory grassroots used to queue round the block for his fringe meeting appearances when he was overshadowing Theresa May’s lacklustre Premiership. Just think of the reception he would have got if his 80-seat triumph had been followed by a calm year at home whilst being beastly to the Europeans as we finally cut our ties with the EU.

Instead Covid-19 nearly killed him and has cast a huge cloud over his first year in No10. The pandemic has not played to Johnson’s strengths, just the opposite. Dealing with the virus requires seriousness and attending to detail whereas the Prime Minister prefers to promote a general feeling of wellbeing and passing off problems with a merry quip.

In these circumstances, it is just as well he’s not facing the grassroots of the party. These are the activists who, in normal circumstances, believe in low tax, low spending and backing business. What they are seeing is their government going on an unprecedented spending spree with the realisation that higher taxation lies somewhere ahead. The Chancellor has put off that day by cancelling the autumn budget statement but is already weaning firms off state support by ending the furlough scheme.

IN the spring Conservative activists acknowledged that spending beyond the wildest dreams of Jeremy Corbyn was needed to deal with the health emergency. However, this second lockdown has been met with deep anxiety about the damage being done to business by the so-called pro-business party.

EU DEAL ON ITS WAY.

It is partly because so much damage has been done to business by government health restrictions, that Johnson dare not grandstand his way to a no deal Brexit in January. The bill to “illegally” bypass the EU Withdrawal Act is unlikely even to go the Lords, a sign that it won’t be needed if a deal is done.

So, firms may be spared the spectacle of 7000 lorries being held up in Kent, but damage is on its way as today’s news over taxes on car parts illustrates.

EFFECT ON THE RED WALL VOTERS.

If the virus hadn’t reduced the Birmingham gathering to a virtual event, the grassroots would have been able to meet Tory MPs from seats in the Midlands and the North that had never voted Conservative before.

So, are those members now contemplating one term in parliament before the red order of things is restored? Not necessarily, there is some interesting research out which indicates that having made the huge decision to change the political allegiance of a lifetime, there is a desire amongst many ex Labour voters to be proved right and for Johnson to succeed.

For that to be the case thought, the government is going to have to raise its game particularly over messaging and testing or we face a dark and fractious winter.

CHANCELLOR EASES GLOOM….FOR NOW.

SUNAK TO THE RESCUE.

It isn’t going to be the best of festive seasons is it? The police, neighbours, even a phone app telling you not to meet the family on Christmas Day. Then comes New Year with 7000 lorries queueing in Kent as we don’t get Brexit done properly.

We need to remind ourselves that the Tories used to be the pro-business party. Now, not content with sending business to distraction with their lack of a health strategy, they are set to let ideology rule and rush us out of the EU transition period. Many firms, especially small ones, don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the mass of paperwork that is the price of us leaving the EU, as well as the pandemic.

Thank heavens for the small comfort given by the Chancellor. The furlough scheme could not be carried on indefinitely and it is true the job support scheme is far less generous. But along with the extension of Bounce Back Loan repayments and the extension of the VAT cut in the hospitality industry, there is hope that the expected huge increase in unemployment can be mitigated.

It seems the Chancellor want to let “zombie” jobs go whilst his measures protect those with a real future. I fear that there will be plenty of jobs going that would have been completely viable but for the pandemic

NEW LEADERSHIP.

It was a shame we couldn’t have all been in Liverpool for Sir Keir Starmer’s first conference as Labour leader. The virtual conference prevented the dynamics that make such occasions come alive. I imagine Liverpool born Unite leader Len McClusky would have been using the conference fringe to denounce the “New Leadership” slogan as meaningless. Instead he had to do it in a TV studio.

Len it was a good statement of intent. It means that the incompetent regime of Corbyn has been consigned to history, that Labour will no longer flirt with ultra-leftism as it starts on the long road back to power.

Sir Keir’s statement that “we love our country” was really important. For Labour to have any hope of regaining its northern strength, it must recognise the deep patriotism of the working class.

Doncaster was a good idea for the speech’s location as it remains the case that Sir Keir sits for a north London seat not far from Jeremy Corbyn. To counter that the party put forward three formidable northern women all week on the media. Deputy leader Angela Raynor, Wigan’s Lisa Nandy and Wirral’s Alison McGovern all did well. They had to fend off criticism that Labour wasn’t clear on its policies. They had the correct answer that now is not the time for that. The task is just to get a hearing and I think Labour may get that after their virtual conference

The Lib Dems are up next with their new leader Ed Davey and a 6% showing in the opinion polls.

FAREWELL SIR HAROLD EVANS.

Harry Evans was one of this country’s great journalists. Unafraid to stand up the Rupert Murdoch, he was, at the Sunday Times, the driving force behind the campaign for justice for people harmed by the thalidomide drug.

Born in Eccles, he failed his 11plus but got a job on a weekly paper in Ashton under Lyme. He rose to be assistant editor of the Manchester Evening News, and then editor of the Northern Echo and the Sunday Times.

He later went to America where he continued to support the cause of campaigning journalism in the age of Trump.