Hancock’s Half Page


The Tory conference hall in Birmingham was a place to go for a snooze (except when The Blonde Mop was speaking). But on the fringe there was plenty going on affecting every business in the North West.


Despite the BAE/EADS merger collapsing and the West Coast rail franchise descending into back biting and law suits, there was still a determination for the region to defy the recession with infrastructure projects.


There were lively fringe meetings put on by Atlantic Gateway, United Utilities and BAE, all stressing that they wanted to help the government grow its way out of the recession. Liverpool 2 Port Terminal had a prime location for its stand and there was news that HS2 is to be speeded up with plans for its route into the North West being published in the next few months.




The BAE/EADS merger drama was unfolding as the Tory conference was getting under way. The Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond were in Birmingham rather than in their normal power centres in Whitehall. On Monday night BAE hosted a long arranged fringe meeting and had to listen to Tory MPs and MEPs claiming BAE were about to be crushed between French and German interests if the merger went ahead. The BAE representative told us the proposed merger was “an opportunity not a necessity”.


By Tuesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s representative had called David Cameron in his hotel suite in Birmingham to indicate her wholesale objection to the deal.


This left North West Tories from Lancashire and Cumbria at the conference worried about the future of BAE. There was widespread criticism of the company’s senior managers who had been on the back foot since a leak had forced them to reveal a half-cooked agreement. Once the plans had been revealed BAE should have gone on the offensive selling the merits of a defence-civilian plane business link up. Instead they spent weeks on the defensive as criticism of the merger mounted.


Now the workforce at Warton,Salmesbury and Barrow are worried about the future for BAE in a world where defence orders are shrinking. Unions have attacked what they claim is a lack of a defence strategy by the British government.




If defence jobs are under threat in the northern part of our region, perhaps we need to look south to the arc of development potential stretching from Manchester Airport along the banks of the Mersey to Liverpool.


Atlantic Gateway held a fringe meeting in Birmingham to get over the message that 250,000 new jobs could be created from £14 bn of investment in everything from the Northern rail hub, Daresbury Science Park, the new Mersey bridge and the Liverpool/Wirral Waters project. Added to this the area has three enterprise zones and the Liverpool 2 Port Terminal which aims to attract freight that currently comes through Southampton and Felixstowe with ultimate destinations in the North.


Dennis Bate of Bovis LendLease said the Atlantic Gateway was just the sort of big scale project that wealth funds were looking to invest in. He told representatives that the era of looking to government for big money was over.


The meeting was going well until the new leader of Cheshire East Council Michael Jones cast doubt on Manchester and Liverpool’s commitment to Atlantic Gateway. It is true that in the past Manchester Council’s Chief Executive Sir Howard Bernstein has been less than enthusiastic about the concept but everyone agreed that unity was essential in backing big scale investment to counter the over heated London economy. How else can we compete with the capital which has at its head a man who dominated the conference?




That is apparently what David Cameron called Boris Johnson just before the latter he descended like a whirlwind on the conference.


Just as I wasn’t carried away by the media euphoria that surrounded Ed Miliband last week, nor was I impressed with the Prime Ministerial credentials of Boris. I rarely queue to get into meetings these days, but I did for Boris because he is interesting and entertaining. But is he really equipped for the hard grind of decision making that the office of Prime Minister requires? David Cameron’s speech had few jokes but he’s taking the tough decisions.


The truth is Boris beat a tired Ken Livingstone in the Mayoral election. He was a great cheerleader for the Olympics but, as he himself acknowledged, the success was down to excellent teams in the Olympic organising bodies.

A BBC poll of conference delegates yielded quite a close result when they were asked who their next leader should be. 60% said Boris 40% backed anyone else. The latter is quite a high figure and suggests that the Conservative Party is not wholly caught up in the Boris mania.





What a start to the Tory conference! A £40 million bill for the taxpayer over the bungled West Coast rail franchise process.


The government’s reputation was badly damaged by the budget u turns on things like the pasty tax. Now having asserted that the rail franchise process had been properly carried out, we find out that serious mistakes were made. Civil servants screwed up but the government’s assurances puts ministers in the frame too.


When administrations get a reputation for incompetence, it is very difficult to win back the trust of the voters. Tories won’t need reminding about the events of twenty years ago when Chancellor Norman Lamont had to exit the Exchange Rate Mechanism.


What makes the West Coast rail shambles so damaging is that news of it was announced by the government around midnight on the day that Labour leader Ed Miliband had made his acclaimed keynote speech at the Labour conference in Manchester. It included a devastating attack on what he called an incompetent, hopeless shower of a government. Then, hey presto, along comes the rail franchise train crash.


It was already going to be a difficult conference for the Conservatives. The Tory Right are almost in open revolt against David Cameron. He failed to deliver full victory in 2010 and right wing backbenchers are suspicious that the Prime Minister is using his Lib Dem Coalition partners as an excuse for not delivering proper Conservative policies.


Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne need to calm representatives in Birmingham who only see continued economic recession and probable election defeat as they look towards 2013. The county council elections next year are important for the Tories. The shires are their territory, but for how long? An ex North West Tory MP told me this week that he was certain Labour will take Lancashire next May.




The Labour conference in Manchester went off smoothly but that didn’t mean that all was sweetness and light among the comrades.


Blackburn MP Jack Straw’s memoires have not gone down well with the rank and file. Many I spoke to questioned what was the point of Jack rubbishing the reputation of the long dead John Smith. He lead the party briefly in the early 1990’s before his sudden sad death. What did we gain by learning from Jack Straw that he liked a drink?


Straw reveals how he was encouraged to challenge Gordon Brown when it became clear that the party was heading for defeat under his leadership. However he lacked the courage to do it and joins a number of other Labour figures who also allowed the unopposed coronation of Brown in 2007 when Tony Blair retired.


Straw has been a brilliant MP for Blackburn. He is very proud of his constituency and the word in Manchester was that he intends to fight again in 2015. If that happens a question arises over the future of his son Will Straw. An up and coming figure in the party, it has been suggested to me that Will might contest the neighbouring Tory held seat of Rossendale and Darwen. It would be interesting if he won because relations between the communities of Blackburn and Darwen are, to put it politely, “interesting”.


Whilst we are on the subject of Labour candidates in Lancashire, how about Alistair Campbell for Burnley?

From remarks he made in Manchester he clearly fancies becoming an MP. His passion for Burnley football club is well known and the Lib Dem MP Gordon Birtwhistle is bound to be vulnerable in 2015.


My final thoughts on Labour’s conference in Manchester must focus on Ed Miliband. It was a good speech but I still think there is a certain awkwardness in his presentation style.


After two years though he has developed the confidence to make the final break with Tony Blair’s New Labour. He said it was too silent about those with responsibilities at the top and too timid about the accountability of those with power.


He’s right about that but New Labour did deliver three election victories.


Follow me at www.jimhancock.co.uk


Liam Byrne might have thought he was being funny leaving a card on his desk saying there was no money left as he left office as Labour’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Actually Liam, it was arrogant, poor politics and sums up why people might not vote Labour back to power in 2015.


However the polls are looking good for Ed Miliband as he arrives in Manchester and people are starting to take Labour seriously again. So this week’s conference needs to give us some idea where the party stands on the major issues of public finances and growth.


Rachel Reeves now shadows Liam Byrne’s old job and made an impressive appearance at a Downtown event in Liverpool a year ago. What we need from her and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is not a detailed budget but some financial principles.


All political parties are already looking to the post 2015 years. George Osborne wants £10bn more cuts. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats made it clear at their conference they won’t be bound beyond 2016. What will Labour do, reverse such cuts or stick with them? The public sector unions are waiting for an answer in Manchester.


Public sector reform is looming as a massive issue. Blair said he had scars on his back when he wrestled with this issue. But the economy in 1997 was very different from now. Councils and the health service are going to have to do things differently. Will we hear Labour’s meaningful thoughts on this in Manchester?


What Labour won’t need if they get back to power is a rerun of the Blair/Brown feud in the shape of the two Eds. Shadow Chancellor Ed is prone to defend Gordon Brown’s record. Ed Miliband points out that Labour presided over widening inequalities. The rivalry isn’t intense yet but the potential is there.




While I was in Brighton, I attended some meaty fringe meetings. Meaty in the sense that the Lib Dems were trying to get to grips with two key issues for the future. Do they disengage from the Coalition at any point and what are the prospects of partnering with Labour after 2015?


On unzipping the Coalition, Tim Farron was not a fan. He’s the Party President and I think a potential leader. The Westminster scribes write him off probably because he comes from the North and will always look a bit young. Farron told a fringe meeting that breaking up the Coalition would just let Tory Ministers in and would lead to the accusation that the Lib Dems were unreliable allies who couldn’t stay the course.


Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton was at the fringe and felt the Lib Dems should get out fast. The cuts were bringing real hardship to the most vulnerable in our society and the Lib Dems were doing serious damage to their reputation by staying in the Coalition she asserted. Making the Tories less nasty didn’t do it for her.


Lord Chris Rennard who cut his teeth in Liverpool politics in the 1970s was against breaking up the Coalition but did believe Lib Dems had to differentiate themselves in the next two years.


Another fringe looked at the possibility of a deal with Labour if there is another hung parliament. Here in the North it’s easy to think that the Lib Dems are natural allies of Labour and what we are witnessing now is an aberration. But down south many rural Lib Dems lean to the right. Nevertheless Labour’s Lord Adonis and MP John Cruddas got a warm reception at the fringe I attended on the prospects of a future Lab-Lib Dem Coalition.


Adonis confessed he wished Labour had introduced the Lib Dems’ pupil premium but overall felt the premise on which the Coalition was founded was shattered. The Tories had got their austerity cuts but the Lib Dems had not secured the constitutional reform they craved.


It was left to former leader Ming Campbell to make the wisest point. Lib Dem and Labour politicians might be texting each other and getting on well but the whole thing could founder on policy.


Quite rightly Ming cited Labour’s political opportunism that had wrecked Lords’ reform. It was a policy Labour had been committed to for years and yet they were prepared to scupper the legislation over the number of days needed for debate in the Commons.


By the way, let’s not hear any more about the southern venues being much more congenial for party conferences from a weather point of view. Blackpool strength winds and Manchester volumes of rain poured down on us.


During one of Tony Benn’s great rants against the modernisation of the Labour Party, he forecast that one day delegates to the party conference would be told that they weren’t there to debate issues but merely to blow up balloons for the leader’s triumphal entry.


Benn’s forecast came to my mind as I watched the recent Republican and Democratic conventions. With our version of the conventions, the party conferences, starting this weekend I thought it might be worth comparing the two.


Way back in American convention history, they were the events at which candidates were chosen and policy formed, not any more.


The primary contests which start across America in the previous winter mean that the candidates are known well in advance. The last time a Republican Convention met with any uncertainty about the candidate was in 1976 when Ronald Reagan attempted to wrest the nomination from Gerald Ford. In the Democrats’ case it was Ted Kennedy’s effort to unseat Jimmy Carter in 1980.


This year yet again there was no opportunity for delegates in Tampa, Florida or Charlotte, North Carolina to influence the policy platform. Similarly while there will be debates on policy motions at the Labour conference in Manchester and the Tory gathering in Birmingham, it will only be Liberal Democrat delegates who will actually make policy line by line when they meet in Brighton.


The wives of political leaders are playing a growing role on both sides of the Atlantic. Here we’ve seen Sarah Brown introduce her husband at a Labour conference. Sam Cam is a fixture with the Tories, but they are bit parts compared to the central roles that Anne Romney and Michele Obama played at their conventions this month. Both put on sparkling performances in contrast to the more staid performances of their husbands, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.


Celebrities at party conferences were certainly a feature of the Blair era and many of Hollywood’s finest supported the Democrats this year in Charlotte. The Republicans however scored an own goal with a bizarre rambling performance by the ageing Clint Eastwood. It didn’t make their day.


So what might be coming to our party conferences in the future? The CNN news channel played the party videos shown to the delegates whereas the BBC always cut away when similar screenings are made at our party conferences. The BBC says it isn’t in the business of broadcasting straight party propaganda. That strikes me as odd considering the rest of the conference is just that.


In the American videos we saw the families of the candidates heavily featured. Everyone with a distant relationship to Romney or Obama was interviewed.

Another striking feature was the emphasis on families with relatives serving in the military.


It’s a close race in the US election this year with the Republicans turning up the heat on the economy and Obamacare (the President’s attempt to introduce something like the NHS to America). There is no doubt that the “Yes we can” Obama optimism of four years ago has faded but incumbent Presidents are rarely turned out. Only Jimmy Carter (1980) and HW Bush (1992) have suffered that fate since 1945.


So in 2012 will we just get balloons and stage managed baloney at our conferences? The Liberal Democrats do still have a real policy making conference and all credit to them. Labour needs an honest debate on its economic policy as the party is taken more seriously again and those Tories who really are unhappy with Cameron need to come out of the woodwork. I doubt it will happen.