Hancock’s Half Page

LUNCH WITH CAMERON AND BLAIR

It’s true! I have had lunch with both the current and former Prime Ministers since I last wrote. I was in the company of many other political journalists, but there’s nothing like seeing these top statesmen in the flesh, studying their mannerisms and demeanour, in order to form a view of where we are heading in 2013.

 

THAT BULLINGDON BRAVURA

 

Whatever he may be feeling inside, David Cameron shows none of the angst and pressure that attended his predecessor Gordon Brown. He peppered his remarks with a number of quite good jokes, the most significant being one about Nick Clegg. He told us Nick would be along to offer his separate Christmas greetings, “although it won’t be very different from mine.” It was an obvious reference to the separate statement Clegg had made on the Leveson Report.

However much discontent there is among grass roots Tories and Lib Dems with their leaders, the Posh Boys retain that easy personal relationship that was displayed in the rose garden on the day the Coalition was formed in 2010.

 

Talk of the Coalition breaking up next year is foolish. This lot are in it for the long haul as Cameron told us at the lunch. The Autumn Statement showed the government’s determination to move away from current spending (servicing debt and benefits) to capital spending on infrastructure. He claimed that previous Tory governments had not tackled school and police reform. This was being done now said the PM. A Comprehensive Spending Review was being undertaken as was a document outlining Coalition priorities for the second half of the parliament. Whether it will amount to much, we will have to see but the aim is to project forward momentum. That is vital. There is little going on in parliament following the hole created by the absence of the Lords Reform Bill. This creates a danger that the government could be depicted like a boxer hanging over the ropes being pummelled by the economic crisis if Cameron and Clegg don’t keep things moving.

 

Cameron observed that planning for the second half of the parliament had been made easier by the passing of legislation to ensure the government had a full five years in power. In the past speculation would already be rife about a possible snap election next year.

 

When that election comes we may not have the Prime Ministerial debates. Cameron told us he felt they sucked the life out of the campaign in 2010. Perhaps he fears the possibility of UKIP leader Nigel Farage forcing his way into the debate on the back of a strong performance in next year’s Euro elections.

 

Cameron was disappointing when asked about the North South Divide. He waffled about people understanding tough decisions had to be taken. This is a government with a London perspective which makes it difficult for our Tory MPs in the North West like Graham Evans. The Weaver Vale MP was my guest at the lunch. He’s a moderate Conservative and was broadly happy with what Cameron said. However he reflected the widespread grass roots unease about gay marriage. Many of his supporters feared that safeguards for religious communities would be overruled by the European Court of Human Rights.

 

BLAIR: NO CHANGE

 

The centrist convictions that delivered Labour three victories were still on display when Tony Blair spoke to us just before Christmas. The “third way” and “centre ground” peppered his remarks.

 

He left office just before the roof fell in on the world economy. So what did he feel about planned measures to prevent the casino banking that operated during his years in office? He warned against going too far. What about companies paying their proper tax in the UK? He acknowledged the mood had changed but we were none the wiser what he felt about it. Perhaps he’s “intensely relaxed” about it.

 

Liverpool Council reckon they will have lost £284 million a year since 2010 and are to hold a large cities crisis summit shortly. Mr Blair was asked about this and gave what I thought was a callous answer. He claimed the public services needed more reform, not less. The financial crisis had exposed the need for change. The former Prime Minister advised councils to be innovative.

 

I always felt Tony Blair was out of touch with Labour’s working class on the issue of immigration. He was responsible for policies which eventually saw a major influx of people from Eastern Europe into Britain. Any regrets that he had not made it clear to people that this would be the consequence of an increase in member countries of the European Union? Immigration was good for Britain said Mr Blair. The Polish community had brought fresh energy to our economy.

This may all be true, and I agreed with his comment that in relation to European policy we must have no empty gestures or empty chairs, but on immigration there was no acknowledgement of the feelings of ordinary people (not bigots) when their communities are transformed and jobs threatened.

 

Lisa Nandy was my guest. The Wigan MP is already on Labour’s front bench despite her radical views on many issues. She agreed with Blair that the party has to be pragmatic in delivering public services better. But that was not enough. She told me “the world has changed since 1997. People are crying out for a principled stand on the issues of fairness and equality.” She thinks Ed Miliband, who broke from Blair’s New Labour, will provide it.

 

40 GLORIOUS YEARS!

 

As the political class are too cowardly to mark the event properly, can I be the one person in the country to raise a glass to our 40 years membership of the European Union.

 

After Empire, the EU has provided us with a new role in the world as a leading member of a group of nations we helped to liberate in 1945. Let us hope in the next 40 years we will provide that leadership and stop looking at the exit door.

IT’S NOT GEORGE, IT’S BALLS !

In 1994 in a brilliant piece of conference oratory,Tory Deputy PM Michael Heseltine was describing a complicated speech on economics that had been made by Gordon Brown. It turned out it had been written by his researcher Ed Balls. So Hezza was able to tell the conference the speech wasn’t Brown’s it was Balls.

 

The Autumn Statement was meant to see George Osborne discredited for having to come to the Commons confessing he’s missed his targets for growth, borrowing and debt reduction. He had to do all those things and the country remains in a dire state. But politics is often about mood and presentation.

 

With a string of announcements to help business, scrapping petrol price increases and measures on tax avoidance, Osborne gave a strong performance in a dire situation. Ed Balls meanwhile was left floundering. An uncertain performance in the Commons will be quickly forgotten. It will be less easy for the Shadow Chancellor and his party to respond to the measures proposed.

 

How for instance will Labour vote on the tiny 1% increase in benefits? Will Labour re-examine its critic of the Coalition that it is cutting too far and too fast whilst there is still political mileage in the claim that Labour got us into this mess? The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is a case in point. The refurbishment of our schools and hospitals was long overdue but it was an expensive way to do it and the Chancellor’s PFI Mark 2 should ensure that the public purse benefits a bit more in the future.

 

There were a number of measures to help the economy in the North. We are shortly to see the plans for extending high speed rail to Manchester and Leeds. Salford is to get ultra fast broadband. Local Enterprise Partnerships are at last going to get some real money to play with. From 2015 they will be able to bid for a single pot of money covering local transport,housing and skills. More money is being poured into the Regional Growth Fund although it has been weakened by resignations and complaints of slow delivery. The new business bank is to have a billion pounds set aside for SME’s.

 

Finally back to the politics of the Autumn Statement. It is quite possible the UK will lose its AAA rating soon but leading economic commentators like Gillian Tett of the Financial Times and Robert Choate of the Office for Budget Responsibility seem relaxed about that. They claim investors have already factored the downgrade into their calculations. They also argue that most countries are struggling at the moment and the UK won’t be that disadvantaged.

 

Nevertheless the loss of our AAA status would be a blow to the Chancellor who must be hoping his package doesn’t unravel in the run up to Christmas. Memories of the aftermath of the Budget with rows over pasty tax and charities were clearly on the mind of key Coalition Ministers in the run up to the Autumn Statement. The senior Lib Dem Ministers involved in this process, leader Nick Clegg and Chief Secretary Danny Alexander are determined to see the economic strategy through and are working effectively with their Tory counterparts.

 

That reassures the markets, but its a very different picture up North. I was talking last week to a senior ex Lib Dem councillor who gained office when the Lib Dems first started to make an impact on northern councils. He has seen all that swept away. His bitterness was tangible. The price for the Lib Dems signing up to this budget reduction strategy is high.

 

May I wish you as happy a Christmas as austerity will allow.

NORTHERN CHALLENGE FOR THE CHANCELLOR

THE IPPR REPORT

“Northern prosperity is national prosperity”, that’s the title of an excellent document published by the Institute For Public Policy Research (IPPR North) ahead of next week’s Autumn Statement. If the Chancellor implements its recommendations, the North can play its rightful part in pulling the country out of the slump.

 

Addressing the gross imbalance in the UK economy between the North and the South East, the report claims halving that output gap would increase national income by £41bn.

 

The economic proposals include a British Investment Bank with £40bn capitalisation, but with regional allocations, a plan for a new body to take over the Northern Rail Franchise and devolution of welfare to work funding to local councils.

 

On the constitutional front IPPR (North) favours metro mayors for West Yorkshire,Greater Manchester and Merseyside. It also favours two bodies to encompass the whole North of England, an Innovation Council and an annual convention of the 11 Northern Local Enterprise Partnerships.

 

This concept of bringing the whole of the North together chimes with a report published a year ago by the Smith Institute.

 

The abolition of the Regional Development Agencies was an act of supreme folly by the incoming government in 2010. Ministers seem to acknowledge that now as they seek to beef up the Local Enterprise Partnerships. But there is probably no going back to the pattern of Yorkshire Forward, One North East and England’s North West. IPPR (North) are right that we need to bring together the collective strength of the whole of the North.

 

My only regret is that the report has a democratic deficit. The people must be given a chance to elect a Council of the North so they can have a say in what is being done in their name. The presence of indirectly elected councillors would not be enough.

 

The report also highlights the importance of plans for the Liverpool Superport and Atlantic Gateway. Amidst all the gloom there are teams of people across the North West trying to cash in on the government’s commitment to infrastructure as a way out of the economic downturn. One of the biggest projects is Superport and Atlantic Gateway.

 

It has three components. A deep water terminal in Liverpool to take the larger ships that are now coming through the widened Panama Canal. The multi-modal Stobarts freight depot at Widnes and the new bridge across the Mersey linking Runcorn and Widnes.

 

Beyond that Peel Holdings have plans for port facilities all the way up the Manchester Ship Canal and with the Northern Hub rail improvements in Manchester expected to upgrade rail movements across to Leeds and beyond, we have a framework on which jobs and prosperity can be hung.

 

To be fair The Chancellor has pump primed some of these projects with government cash. Now we have to hope that the boost of infrastructure development isn’t overwhelmed by continued pessimism amongst bankers, investors and the public at large.

THE AUTUMN STATEMENT

This is the time for hard pounding by Chancellor George Osborne when he makes his autumn statement next Wednesday.

 

The 2010 optimism that the economy would be on the turn by now has disappeared as the Bank of England cuts its growth forecast to 1%. The Bank is also predicting that inflation won’t fall to the government’s target of 2% until the middle of next year. That forecast should ensure that Mr Osborne cancels the planned increase in fuel tax at least.

 

The UK’s economic prospects have deteriorated since the Budget. This is most starkly illustrated in the fall in tax revenues the Treasury is receiving and also the higher welfare payments that are being paid out.

 

This is where Labour is on the attack accusing the Chancellor of digging himself into a hole that is counterproductive to getting the economy moving again. There is still some political capital in the Tories reminding people that ex Labour Minister Liam Byrne left office saying there was no money left; but not much.

 

The Tories and Lib Dems have been in charge of the economy for two and a half years now and the measures in this autumn statement will cast a long shadow towards the next election.

 

We are used to local councils across the North from Leeds to Liverpool crying foul when cuts are made in Town Hall budgets. But this year they really do seem to have a case. Having already made drastic savings, demands for further economies will bite into front line services. In Wirral for instance leaks suggest the entire Town Hall staff may be asked to reapply for their jobs.

 

The Institute For Fiscal Studies is predicting that austerity could last until 2018 and if this Autumn Statement is going to be a tough one, what can we expect? There’s speculation that the maximum tax-free annual pension contribution will be cut from £50,000 to £40,000 and there could be further increases in stamp duty on the sale of properties worth over £1m. However there is a real battle going on about the possible introduction of new council tax bands on high value houses. The Daily Mail claimed recently that Osborne and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg favour the move but the Prime Minister is resisting.

 

The Lib Dems are desperate that if they are to be associated with an austerity statement, they will be able nonetheless to show some evidence of their “fairness” agenda. This may come with an announcement that the income tax personal allowance will be raised to £10,000 by April 2015. That’s a month before the General Election when the voters will get their chance to decide if all this economic pain has been worth it.

 

ANNE McCARTNEY: A WARRIOR FOR DEMOCRACY

At the Livercool Awards I had the pleasure to meet Anne McCartney. She works for Price Waterhouse Coopers in Shipley near Leeds. Anne is a keen supporter of the new Downtown Leeds project.

 

On polling day for the West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner elections she was staffing a temporary polling station in a rough area of Leeds. A generator provided heat and power so that the few could vote in the election. However the generator expired, plunging voters and polling staff into darkness. The Town Hall was consulted by Anne but didn’t know what to do to keep the wheels of democracy turning.

 

Anne did. She set up a temporary polling station in her car until power was restored. That’s democracy in action. Well done Anne

PARTY POLITICS, A MINORITY SPORT

MANCHESTER CENTRAL

In 1942 the voters of Poplar South could be forgiven for a lack of interest in a by election. The Nazis were at the gates of Stalingrad and Rommel was threatening to conquer Egypt. 8% turned out.

 

Manchester Central’s voters had no such military distractions last week as they recorded the lowest turnout since those desperate wartime days.

 

The quality of candidates was high. Lucy Powell, Labour’s first woman MP, has already worked in key posts in the Labour Party. Marc Ramsbottom is a serious and able leader of the Lib Dem opposition on Manchester Council. Matthew Sephton deserves a seat with better prospects for the Conservatives.

 

The economy is still flat lining. Many people in Manchester Central are suffering benefit and service cuts and yet they didn’t see the parliamentary game as one they wanted to take part in. It is true that Labour were always going to hold this seat, but the lack of uncertainty about the result cannot be the full explanation for such apathy. People are losing faith that conventional politics can make a difference.

A POLICE COMMISSIONER’S LOT

Low polls were also a feature of the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) across the North. From Leeds to Liverpool the turnout averaged around 13%.

 

Mark Burns-Williamson won a run off with an Independent to become the PCC in West Yorkshire. One of his first tasks will be to appoint a new Chief Constable now that Norman Bettison is stepping down following the recent Hillsborough revelations.

 

In the rest of the Downtown patch, our new PCCs face the stark realities of cuts as they set police budgets against a very tough deadline.

 

Both Tony Lloyd (Greater Manchester) and Jane Kennedy (Merseyside) won on the first ballot for Labour. Keep an eye on Kennedy who is set to make some waves as she streamlines the bloated structure of the old police authority.

 

Given their poll ratings, the Conservatives can be reasonably pleased that they won two PCC races in the North West. In Cheshire John Dwyer saw off Labour’s John Stockton in a second round run off. A former Assistant Chief Constable, some are forecasting a difficult relationship with the current Chief Constable David Whatton. Meanwhile In Cumbria magistrate and Tory candidate Richard Rhodes also won a second round ballot run off against Labour candidate Patrick Leonard.

 

But the Conservatives couldn’t repeat their success in Lancashire, soon to be the scene for a hotly contested battle for control of County Hall. Conservative candidate Tim Ashton took Labour’s Clive Grunshaw to a second ballot but was edged out.

 

The Liberal Democrats got no PCC elected in the whole of England and Wales. In the Downtown area they came bottom of the poll in West Yorkshire,Lancashire and Cumbria and next to bottom in Cheshire. On Merseyside Paula Keaveney was five thousand votes behind her ex Lib Dem colleague Kieron Reid standing as an independent. Only in Greater Manchester did former copper Matt Gallagher put up a reasonable showing.

 

I was with two of the North West’s top election experts this week. They both forecast that Nick Clegg would be deposed by Vince Cable before the next election and the Lib Dems would leave the Tories as a minority government for six to twelve months before 2015.

PRESTON PASSION AWARD

The highlight of the North West Royal Television Society Awards for me was when the Best Live Event category was won by the BBC for their coverage of The Preston Passion. It recognised both the commitment of the BBC and the people of Preston for a great effort in poor weather last Easter.