Hancock’s Half Page




I’m sure most Remainers will be heartily irritated by the patronising tone of the Foreign Secretary this week. It was billed as an attempt to bridge the great divide in our nation over Brexit. It failed for a number of reasons.

We don’t need to be told by Boris Johnson that our support for the UK’s membership is based on “noble sentiments” which presumably we are now invited to discard. It is not sentiment that motivates us but a concern for the economic future of this country and our determination to face the future not hanker after a global imperial past.

I use the word imperial because Johnson would be better fitted to be a colonial administrator (along with his mate Jacob Rees Mogg) when he reassures us that we will still be able to “go on cheapo flights to stag parties” and “struggle amiably to learn the European languages whose decline has been a paradoxical feature of EU membership.” This trivial sneering attitude to our European friends is not worthy of a British Foreign Secretary who continues to demine his office. It looked like a V sign from the cliffs of Dover to me.

He claimed that Brexit had eclipsed the far right in Britain. In fact, the small fascist parties were all delighted with Brexit and more broadly and seriously the vote has made some people feel they have permission to express racist sentiments.

He says a second referendum would create a year of turmoil and feuding. Few people want a referendum on the same lines as 2016. We want a referendum on the final deal with a rejection of it meaning we stay in the EU. We had a referendum in 1975 which was overturned in 2016. We have regular General Elections which overturn previous results.

Boris and his friends call us Remoaners. Be in no doubt if the referendum had been narrowly lost by Leave, they would have been battling now to overturn it.

I’m giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that this speech was intended to reach out to us Remainers. Perhaps I am being too generous. When asked if he could resign if Mrs May stays too close to the EU he said, “we’re all very lucky to serve”. The threat still hangs over Mrs May from Boris and the Brexit ultras in the cabinet. So perhaps his speech was directed at the Prime Minister whilst giving a nod and a wink to those that want him to be Prime Minister.

For businesses, particularly in the North, crying out for some certainty, the speech contained nothing. It is pathetic that nearly two years after the referendum, the party that prides itself on being born to rule, cannot resolve its internal squabbling and tell our European colleagues what relationship it wants going into the future.

I must acknowledge that the polls have not moved substantially in a Remain direction. That is partly because Britain is benefitting form the growth in the world economy. However, while we have grown by 1.8%, the much derided Eurozone has grown by 2.5%.

The Brexiteers will plough on for now riding the tide of economic growth but our message must be that Britain remains completely divided on the issue and we Remainers will not give in.

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This week’s commemoration of thirty-year-old women getting the vote in 1918 was marred for me by the suggestion that the women who resorted to arson and criminal damage should be retrospectively pardoned.

This is like Britain apologising for various historic crimes like slavery and changing the names of buildings named after slave owners etc.

History is history and cannot be changed. We cannot make ourselves feel better about our imperial past by apologising now. What we can do is conduct ourselves properly now.

The violent behaviour of the suffragette women was condemned at the time and certainly would be condemned by politicians today. Just because the arson and damage occurred a hundred years ago, doesn’t justify it. Nor did it achieve its objective. Indeed, one could argue that the suspension of violence during the First World War made it easier for opponents to admit defeat to this highly just cause.


Can we trace the dramatic decline of the Liberal Party to their leader Herbert Asquith’s opposition to women getting the vote? The first election after women were allowed to vote saw a huge majority for the coalition led by the Liberal David Lloyd George. However, the three elections in the early 1920’s saw the great switch between Labour and the Liberals.

We should not overlook the fact that millions of working class men were also enfranchised which will have helped Labour.


This important anniversary had me thinking about some of the remarkable women MPs I have reported on over the years.

Way ahead at the top of my list is Barbara Castle, the Labour MP for Blackburn for thirty years after the Second World War. She showed how effective a woman MP could be. As Minister for Transport she introduced two of the most significant features affecting everyone who drives; seat belts and the breath test. She was subject to huge amounts of abuse from “one for the road” motorists or people arguing that wearing a belt was an infringement of their liberty. More abuse followed when as Secretary for Employment she tried to bring an end to wild cat strikes with her plan “In Place of Strife”. Then in the mid seventies when Labour returned to office she introduced a major improvement in pensions with the State Earnings Related Pensions Scheme.

From local government on the Labour side I would choose Louise Ellman. As leader of Lancashire Council in the 1980’s she saw a role for local government in the regeneration of areas. Lancashire Enterprises was a ground-breaking concept at the time with people claiming it wasn’t a council’s role. Now it is commonplace.

On the Conservative side I look to the Wirral. Lynda Chalker was the MP for Wallasey for many years and served in many ministerial departments. Of more recent vintage we have Esther McVey who was a Wirral MP but now sits in the Cabinet representing Tatton. I would also give a mention to Christine Hamilton who should have been an MP but did a brave job defending her husband Neil during the cash for questions drama.

As for the Lib Dems, Shirley Williams tops my list. Although only briefly MP for Crosby, she was one of the Prime Minister’s we should have had with her articulate support for the middle ground of politics.

So, let’s salute 100 years of women getting the vote without trendy gestures that muddle and confuse the issue.

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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.


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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My 40 years of covering ministerial visits to the North have left me a bit jaded. They are billed as opportunities for ministers to get out of the Westminster bubble and hear what “real people” are saying. One of two things then happen. Eager ministerial aides pack the programme with too many events so nobody has a satisfactory dialogue, or the dreaded call to Return to The Bubble comes and the event is cancelled or curtailed at the last minute.

This nearly happened this week when regional Conservatives, led by Knowsley businessman Tony Caldera, had set up an excellent visit to Merseyside by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss. Luckily a call to return for a three-line whip didn’t materialise and Downtown was able to host a gathering of the leaders of the business community on Merseyside with a powerful Treasury Minister. Liz Truss has had a colourful career which perhaps contributed to the relaxed and frank way she handled questions at the Downtown event. At the end of the day the Treasury calls the shots and an hour with the Chief Secretary in listening and delivering mode was very useful.

The main message from Merseyside business was that the region was on the up. The local economy had grown by £30bn since 2010. Max Steinberg, chair of this year’s International Festival of Business, was in particularly upbeat mood. As he thrust festival publicity leaflets towards Ms Truss he announced that 13,000 delegates had already signed up for the event.

Mark Basnett told the meeting that the Local Enterprise Partnership had just received a further tranche of money this very week. Phil Redmond (Merseyfilm) was told by the Minister that she had been a fan of Grange Hill, before he stressed the need to refocus on the importance of the cultural economy ten years after Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture. Bringing Channel Four to Liverpool would help.

This week has seen Town Halls announcing big increases in council tax and the minister was pressed on this. Liz Truss believed the future lay in council’s funding themselves locally. A time when central government grant disappears isn’t far away.

The Minister had come armed with statistics showing the growth of the Mersey docks with most exports going to Europe. This provoked a flurry of questions on Brexit. Mark Povall from Liverpool Airport wanted reassurance on the very basic issue of whether the current freedom of the skies arrangements would continue with Europe. Airlines were having to plan for 2019.The Chief Secretary didn’t directly address the issue but said £3bn had been put aside for Brexit preparations.

Perhaps most interesting was the Minister’s observation about connectivity. We have just had yet another plan from Transport for the North (TfN) about what we want. She urged us to concentrate on intracity projects rather than the entire HS3. The thinking appears to be that the Treasury will back projects where there is intensive use (Liverpool-Manchester, Leeds-Manchester) but fast journeys across the whole North might not get the funding.

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