Hancock’s Half Page

HS2: THE LAST STRAW FOR BALLS?

 

 

Ed Balls is becoming a real liability to the Labour Party. His close association with Gordon Brown was one of the reasons why Ed Miliband didn’t appoint him Shadow Chancellor when he became leader three years ago. It’s often forgotten now that Alan Johnson was Ed’s first Shadow Chancellor.

 

Balls gloomy forecasts about the economy are now seen as over pessimistic. His hasty action, when Children’s Secretary, in sacking Haringey Social Services Director Sharon Shoesmith has led to a massive pay off this week. While that news was coming through, angry Labour MPs told the new Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh that Balls should stop messing about with the HS2 project. This is the issue that is set to be the first big test of the Miliband-Balls relationship.

 

I met Ed Balls in Manchester last week and tried to find out if the negative vibes he had been sending out about this vital rail project for the North was just about keeping costs down or the start of Labour’s disengagement with the project as a matter of principal. Balls told me it was the former, but then failed to reassure me that even if spending was kept within current figures, Labour’s support was guaranteed.

 

That’s been the problem in recent weeks. Balls has been sending out signals that its not just the summer cost increases that he’s worried about, but that he might like to use the money on other things if he gets into power.

 

Then there was the removal of Halewood MP Maria Eagle from her job as Shadow Transport Secretary. Labour sources tell me she was “incandescent” at not being told about Balls Brighton conference remarks about HS2.

 

The leaders of Leeds and Manchester councils received high praise from Transport Secretary Patrick McLouglin for their support for HS2 at a conference in Manchester this week. When the city’s leader Sir Richard Leese joined the minister on the platform I asked the councillor for his assessment of what Ed Balls was up to.

 

Leese claimed that Mary Creagh was as keen on HS2 as Maria Eagle, although hours later Creagh was parroting Balls heavily caveated views to that meeting of Labour MPs. However the council leader went on to tell me that it would be “irresponsible” for his party to go into the next election opposed to HS2.

 

It has even been suggested that Balls has been getting some grief from his wife Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. They have neighbouring constituencies in West Yorkshire. HS2 is planned to run close to the community of Altofts in her Normanton. Pontefract and Castleford constituency and 100 people turned up at a meeting to discuss it with her. I mentioned this to Mr balls who said I’d been staying up too late reading the wrong articles.

 

Reports suggest Balls may not come off the fence till next spring or even closer to the General Election. This is irresponsible. Doug Oakervee, the outgoing chairman of HS2 Ltd confirmed to me at the Manchester conference that all party consensus was vital to potential investors.

 

Ed Miliband should tell Mr Balls to issue a statement backing HS2 if the current budget is kept to. If Balls resists he should be sacked. Labour has suffered before when its leader refused to deal with a troublesome Chancellor.

 

There are a number of potential successors. Two, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna and Shadow Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves were at a Downtown Leeds event recently and were very impressive by all accounts.

 

 

 

ENERGY CRISIS: JOHN MAJOR IS TO BLAME TOO

When we booked John Major to speak to us parliamentary journalists this week we were expecting some gentle reflections on his time in office in the nineties. Perhaps some thoughts about his predecessor Margaret Thatcher being a back seat driver or about the soapbox he used in 1992 to deliver the Conservatives last General Election victory.

 

But no, the former Prime Minister decided to wade into the energy debate with a call for a windfall tax on the energy companies. It was a reminder to all that the man who won a fourth term for the Conservatives is still around. He rarely makes speeches and generally avoids embarrassing the government but it was clear from listening to him that he was getting a lot off his chest.

 

MAJOR POWER CUT

 

But to return to the hot political topic of the moment, energy. I thought I’d ask Mr Major if he felt any responsibility for the current crisis. After all it is the long term failure of successive government to invest in our energy infrastructure that has left us with a perfect storm. Coal and old nuclear power plants closing, the increasing need to import expensive gas and rocketing bills.

 

Major’s government was in office about half way between 1961 when Britain opened its first commercial nuclear plant (and led the world with the technology) and 2023 when the Hinckley Point station announced this week will come on line. The early nineties would have been the time to plan for the future given the long investment lead times needed. With the frankness only available to an elder statesman John Major told me that he was “happy to admit to a million errors and failing to do anything about civil nuclear power was one of them.”

 

One can admire his honesty but be appalled either at the short sightedness of our energy planners or the cowardice of our politicians in the face of voters fears about nuclear leaks or spending money on projects that would not bring short term electoral advantage.

 

Anyway the new nuclear programme is now under way with the Chinese and French in charge. It should mean plenty of work for us in the north of England where many of the skills are located. Let’s hope the waste issue has been thoroughly thought through this time as we continue to incur the massive decommissioning costs of the old nuclear industry.

 

MAJOR ON WINNING IN THE NORTH

 

Apart from energy we were treated at the lunch to some old fashioned one nation Toryism. Mr Major declared that his party would never fight back in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool by pandering to its core vote. He referred to the “silent have nots, I know them, I grew up with them.” He mentioned “lace curtain poverty” and said Tory policy had to be addressed to them.

 

His time as Prime Minister was undermined by Euro sceptic rebels headed by the current Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. He criticised the way he was handling the benefit reforms.

 

In an unguarded moment in 1995 he had called some of his Cabinet colleagues “bastards”. Getting years of frustration off his chest he told us on Tuesday “it was true, they were.”

 

He ended with a defence of our membership of the European Union that Ted Heath would have been proud of.

 

We may not hear from John Major again for some time but his words will need to be heeded by David Cameron who most of the time is being pressed to the right.

THE UNIVERSAL CREDIT TIMEBOMB

 WOULD YOU CREDIT IT

This was to be the month when the government rolled out universal credit across the nation. Six benefits merged into one with employers keeping the tax authorities up to date with rapidly changing staff earnings on a real time computer system.

 

In fact the scheme has only had a full trial in the small Pennine town of Ashton Under Lyne. Recently that was cautiously extended to Warrington, Wigan and Oldham. Why the timidity by Iain Duncan Smith? After all the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions likes to turn up the volume.

 

What’s happened in Ashton gives us a clue. 78% of claimants needed help filling in the forms for relatively straightforward claims. The pilot schemes are not even attempting to deal with people with complex personal circumstances.

 

The big worry surrounds the ability of a major government computer system eventually to deal with the benefit claims of millions of people. It’s not only the numbers but the rapidly changing personal circumstances of people on zero hours contracts or temporary employment. It is going to place an extra burden on employers if it works well.

 

And if it doesn’t? The history of big government computer projects is not good. Remember the millions wasted trying to get all our health records onto one computer system.? The prospects are truly alarming. Thousands of people could be left with the wrong amount of money or none at all. The political backlash could be severe. The Chancellor George Osborne knows this. There was widespread speculation earlier this year that he wanted The Quiet Man removed from the DWP so that the policy could be reviewed.

 

As it is Iain Duncan Smith remains, blaming his officials as the National Audit Office says the programme suffers from “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance.”

 

BRANT BLOW.

 

Joe Anderson is the bluff, can-do, in your face elected mayor of Liverpool. Paul Brant was his deputy and in charge of the finances. He brought a lawyer’s calm deliberation to the job. He reassured people that the “wild” had been taken out of this western city for good.

 

His shock resignation for personal reasons is a major blow for Joe who was in fine form at a Downtown event in Manchester days before Brant’s departure.

 

His message was that Liverpool is as business friendly as the noisy neighbours down the M62. The problem for Joe is that Manchester keeps getting the big spondoolies. The £800m joint deal between Manchester Airports Group and the Chinese government was the most eye catching announcement from the Chancellor’s week long visit to China.

 

CAMERON IN LEEDS.

 

The government is clearly on a charm offensive in the north. It’s easy to see why. Pollster Peter Kellner this week published a survey showing the entrenched view of northerners that the Tories don’t care about our part of the country.

 

While the Chancellor headed for Beijing and Hong Kong, Cameron was in Halifax and Leeds. He said he was convinced the North/ South divide could be bridged and reiterated his support for HS2 in achieving that.

 

GLITTERING NIGHT.

 

Well done Rainford Solutions of St Helens which has won a major contract with CERN, the Swiss scientific plant researching the Higgs particle. It is named after Professor Peter Higgs who for forty years has led the search for this particle which explains why atoms and stars exist. It is arguably the most exciting discovery in theoretical physics ever.

 

So I felt really privileged to be in his presence as he got an honorary degree at Manchester University this week.

He was in stellar company because also honoured was Professor Mario Molina who discovered the danger of chlorofluorocarbons which was destroying the ozone layer increasing the threat of skin cancer.

 

The quartet of honorary graduates was completed by Frances O’Grady, the first woman General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress and Sir Bobby Charlton.

 

A great night for Manchester University and its Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell.

 

 

TURBULENT TIMES FOR THE REGION’S TORIES

 

 

 

 

Tony Benn used to berate the media for concentrating on political personalities rather than policies. But politics is a heady mix of issues that affect real people and the people we elect to change our lives.

 

Personalities do matter. Colourful leadership attracts media attention and affects or improves morale amongst party activists. Politics is a turbulent brew of people and policy and unlike business management it is constantly changing. In a political life a politician will constantly face elections where he or she is pitted against colleagues on the climb up the greasy pole.All this has been in evidence over the past week both at Westminster and in our Town Halls.

CABINET NEXT FOR ESTHER?

 

Esther McVey’s promotion to Employment Minister caught everyone’s attention. The image of the Wirral West MP striding up Downing Street in a beautiful floral silk dress provided the picture the Prime Minister wanted of a northern woman on the up in the Tory Party. Esther ticks so many boxes. Whilst the national media have focused on her television career, we know her best as a Merseyside business woman who has devoted much time to encouraging other women into business. She may well be in the Cabinet before the General Election.

 

The emphasis on promoting women means it’s tough for talented Tories like Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster), David Morris (Morecambe), Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) and Ben Wallace (Preston North).

NEW LABOUR BLOW FOR HS2.

 

I heard Maria Eagle make a great speech on rail fares at the Brighton conference. She was across her brief but has been moved to shadow Environment,Food and Rural Affairs, an odd choice when you remember her constituency is the urban Garston and Halewood. She continued to speak up for HS2 after Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls had cast doubt on Labour’s support for the project and it looks even more now that the project could be cancelled if the party comes to power.

 

Luciana Berger(Wavertree) and Alison McGovern (Wirral South) got new jobs but Stephen Twigg lost his Shadow Education post. He’ll now handle constitutional issues. Twigg has been a victim of Labour’s confused position on issues like free schools, which is not all down to him.

 

TURBULANCE AT THE TOWN HALLS.

 

It has also been quite a week in local government. Barbara Spicer is quitting as Chief Executive of Salford Council. The elected Salford Mayor Ian Stewart said he hoped “false rumours about personality issues do not taint the good work she has done for Salford.” I doubt that statement will quell suggestions there has been a major falling out between the two.

 

Two of the region’s most colourful and talented local government Tory figures are in trouble. Before a recent county council meeting Geoff Driver narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in his leadership of the Conservative opposition. They lost power to Labour in May. Driver’s robust style is clearly not to the taste of many in his group but he remains undeterred. At the meeting he attacked the Labour administration for accessing his emails as part of an investigation relating to the suspension of the county’s Chief Executive Phil Halsall. He also supported a motion pointedly praising Mr Halsall’s work in securing Preston’s City Deal. This provoked a debate about the merits of the suspended officer which may have conseqences down the line.

 

Another Tory in trouble with his group is Mike Jones, the leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council. Cllr Jones has given vigorous leadership to the authority and has a senior position in the Local Government Association nationally.

 

However I was at a packed Chester Town Hall last week where plans for a student village on the outskirts of the city were thrown out with one vote in favour. Cllr Jones was known to favour the project but took no formal part in proceedings because of his friendship with the developer.

The run up to the vote saw the sacking of the Tory planning chairman and suspension of four Conservative councillors for voting to take the matter to a full council meeting.

 

Like Geoff Driver, Mike Jones won a vote of confidence in his leadership this week but still has a lot of bridges to build with his group. Meanwhile the problem of student ghettos in inner Chester remains.