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.
STRAW MEN ON THE MOVE?
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.
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