Hancock’s Half Page

CUTTING UP PM’s CREDIT CARD.

THE BROAD PICTURE.

After the blustering boosterism of the Prime Minister in Manchester the other week, next Wednesday we will have a more polished, serious performance by the Chancellor.

Rishi Sunak is widely seen as the PM in waiting and is already positioning himself in contrast to the seat of the pants approach of the current incumbent of Number Ten.

In the Budget and Spending Review, Sunak will remind the nation that bills have to be paid for, and his own MPs that one day they will get their low tax, small state party back again.

The Chancellor is also likely to take a different approach to business in his Budget speech. Bosses are feeling bewildered by the hostility of the government when they have pointed out the shortage of labour and the spiralling costs of energy. Suck it up and pay more wages seems to have been the Prime Minister’s advice. Sunak is likely to embrace business as the partners of government, particularly on delivering the green agenda.

THE MEASURES.

A lot of policy announcements that could have been in the Budget have already been announced. The Health and Care Levy, National Insurance and Corporation tax increases and the Green Plan.

What will be of most interest is Sunak’s comments on the possible economic storm that could hit us this winter. For instance, what is going to happen to inflation. With the soaring price of petrol and gas, it wasn’t surprising that the Governor of the Bank of England recently seemed to depart from his policy of maintaining historically low base rate.

But any move by the Governor to increase interest rates would have a dramatic effect on government debt servicing not to mention people’s mortgages. The Chancellor will point out that quantitative easing is about to end. Also, the ending of the Universal Credit uplift. Both could dampen spending, not to mention the possible effects of another upsurge in Covid.

I wrote earlier that I expect Sunak to be more emollient to business and we may see limited measures to help. Research and development tax reliefs might be increased following a review and a successor scheme to Kickstart and apprentice grants may be announced. However, business rate reform looks as far away as ever. It is scandalous for a government with a 78-seat majority not to have the guts to tackle this thorny issue.

Alongside the Budget we are due to get the spending review for the next three years. Money for the NHS always gets a cheer but support for local government and the justice system, less so. And yet our councils are desperate for cash having played a vital role in combating the pandemic. Meanwhile court delays mean justice delayed is justice denied for so many victims

SIR DAVID AMESS.

Our thoughts should be with all MPs, councillors; indeed, many other frontline staff who face this uncertain world on a daily basis.

Could the keyboard warriors give it a rest? Their vile words may be just that to most of them, but a few are then set on a very dark path indeed towards undermining our democracy.

LOSS OF REPUTATION.

PERFIDIOUS ALBION

“Getting Brexit done is 10,000 times more important than lawyers yapping re international law” That was the view of the then top advisor to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, two years ago. The government was in a titanic struggle with parliament over Brexit and signed the Northern Ireland Protocol.

It was a formal, solemn international treaty and yet we now hear from Ian Paisley Jnr that the Prime Minister assured him he would tear it up.

It is clear that this government doesn’t give a fig for our reputation as a country that can be trusted. The Irish are right to say that states should count the spoons when dealing with Britain in the future.

The European Union have just gone out of their way to try and help us out of our self-created mess with trade between Great Britain and Ireland. Still the crazed Brexiteer Lord Frost isn’t happy. He wants to remove the jurisdiction of the European Court.

My advice to the EU would be to say no and prepare the trade sanctions against us.

Are Leavers truly comfortable with all this? Rowing over the Irish border. Picking fights with the French over fishing? Instead of being a strong stabilising force in the EU, we have become the unreliable, unruly troublemakers outside. Johnson is responsible for setting this tone with his incoherent response to the energy crisis and his attack on business still wrestling with the complexities and cost of Brexit.

A WAY BACK?

No party, not even the Liberal Democrats, dare talk in public about a return to the EU.

However, I attended a fringe meeting at the Labour conference where a strategy to at least end the hard Brexit was mapped out by pro-European party members.

It was stressed that telling Leavers they had made a mistake would be counterproductive. Garston MP Maria Eagle said Brexit had been a disaster but a new way of talking about it had to be devised without rehearsing the old arguments.

Others argued for a return to the Single Market and Customs Union. A campaign had to be built from the grassroots. That was not done in the 2016 Referendum when there was a reliance on fear rather than a positive case for EU membership.

Journalist Polly Toynbee urged Labour to end its silence on Europe by showing how closer ties could help solve issues like the haulage crisis.

There is little chance of that at the moment. Labour strategists fear it would antagonise people in the Northern Red Wall seats where the Leave vote was strong.

It will need hard work from the ground up in those left behind communities to convince people that their problems had little to do with the EU that was there to help them with workers rights, regional investment, and hassle-free travel

TORY CHALLENGE TO BUSINESS.

THE BLUSTER.

The gauntlet was well and truly thrown down to business at the Tory conference in Manchester this week.

Charges of not paying UK workers enough and relying on cheap European labour were coupled with criticisms of poor investment in new equipment and technology. Also, around the conference there remained the suspicion that the petrol crisis was whipped up by a haulage industry that had exploited drivers for years.

So, there we have it the traditional party of business telling bosses to pay their staff more and invest for jobs leaving Labour once again floundering for an answer to the Tories who seem to lack principals but have a mastery of political tactics.

Up to now people, particularly in the North, have shown a weird affection for the Master of Bluster who is leading this country. Johnson’s cheerful demeanour seems to be enough in the face of the coming storm from energy price rises, higher taxes and the withdrawal of the Universal Credit top up.

They don’t mind that he is poorly briefed on many issues. This was exposed on Sunday when the BBC’s Andrew Marr suggested to the PM that roast pork was about to take on a whole new meaning as farmers slaughtered pigs that could not be processed and burnt them on their farms. A fatuous joke sufficed for the Prime Minister.

It is partly because Labour is still not cutting through. The Tories clearly think there is no threat for them, or they wouldn’t have spent their time in Manchester with a late celebration of their December 2019 victory and railing against businesses.

I call it a conference but any pretence that the Conservative rank and file have any ability to influence things has long gone. Even the debating hall was smaller because organisers didn’t want the sight of rows of empty seats. Even some Tories can’t afford a week of Manchester city centre hotel prices now that the party has turned its back on the Blackpool landladies.

THE REALITY.

Let us see how it all turns out. Business is feeling bruised but there is merit in them looking after their workers and investing more. Not that they have been helped by a government that has taken them out of the EU and lacks a coherent programme for “levelling up.” You would have thought that a conference in Manchester would have been the time to clarify this policy. Some hope that now that Michael Gove is in charge of it, that we will get clarity. I think the truth is that the Tories were spooked by defeat in Chesham and Amersham and the policy now amounts to a general nationwide drive to generally improve skills, infrastructure, and the environment. The Northern Powerhouse will just limp along.

Maybe Johnson’s optimism will prove well founded but there are huge dangers in his approach to business. The Prime Minister may have sown the seeds of a winter of strikes as workers, encouraged by him to ask for more pay, do so as prices soar. It is unclear how the crisis in energy costs is going to play out but come January we may see a different public mood.

LEFT ON WAY BACK,BUT NOT IN UK.

GERMAN RESULT ENCOURAGING.

President Biden’s victory last November and the likelihood of a Social Democrat Chancellor in Germany is very encouraging. In the late years of the last decade the populist right was winning everywhere with Trump, Bolsonaro (Brazil) and Johnson providing a triumvirate to depress everyone on the centre left.

Angela Merkel was also from the right but used her power cautiously and was hailed as the mother of Germany. Despite this her party has suffered heavy defeats in the elections with the Social Democrats rising from the ashes and the Greens advancing well. Barring some freak deal by the Christian Democrats, Europe’s most powerful economy should be in the hands of the left come Christmas. With Germany and the United States having progressive governments, it suggests that we are not on a permanent march to the right. May we also look for signs of change in Britain?

STRUTTING THEIR STUFF IN BRIGHTON.

I went to the Labour conference in Brighton to try to answer that question.

Corbynistas are still very strong among activists who are always overrepresented at conference. However, Sir Keir Starmer had the unions on side to drive through reforms that should see an end to unelectable leaders of the party emerging again and MPs having to fight endless reselection battles.

Rules were put in place to try and root out anti-Semitism. Louise Ellman seems convinced they will work. The former Liverpool Riverside MP has re-joined the party. One aide remarked that Ellman in, Andy McDonald out looked like a good move to him. McDonald was the Corbynite Shadow Cabinet Minister who quit during conference.

Starmer has had a reasonable conference. His best line was that victory in the General Election was more important than party unity. It is an important statement because it signals that he won’t bow to the left as he tries to focus on policies that will attract back traditional Labour supporters.

There were a number of policy announcements from him and his highly competent Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves. £28bn a year for climate change, abolition of business rates and the removal of charitable status from private schools may help to deal with the question of what Labour stands for.

But the fact remains that Labour should be streets ahead in the polls. It is mid-term, and the government are messing up on multiple fronts. Take their solution to the haulage driver shortage. Only a government led by an Old Etonian could come up with a policy which amounts to this: “Hey you Romanian person. Come to the UK to help us out, but only for a few months. We like to hire and fire”.

So still lagging in the polls, doubts remain about Starmer’s leadership. All week I saw Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Deputy Leader and Ashton MP Angela Rayner attending every fringe meeting possible. They leave the impression that they are available to offer a more vibrant leadership should a vacancy arise.

Burnham had the better week. Angela Rayner’s “scum” remark at the party’s North West reception did her no favours. It is true Boris Johnson has made racist jokes. He has also appointed the most diverse set of ministers in British political history.