BERNSTEIN: ALL GUNS BLAZING.

Sir Howard Bernstein and I have had our differences over the years, chiefly concerning his prioritisation of cities over the region. So, when I say it was a real privilege to sit next Ito him at a Downtown dinner last week, I mean it.

It was a Downtown event at its best. Great food in the excellent Lowry Hotel in Salford, the movers, and shakers of Manchester around a table where all could participate and Sir Howard ranging over a series of issues that business throughout the region cares about.

Let’s start with the Northern Powerhouse and Levelling Up. He thinks the Prime Minister is in no man’s land with this project. He saw it as a way of retaining support in the Red Wall only to find it alienated the Blue Wall. Sir Howard reminded us that George Osborne (the only leading Tory who really believed in devolution) is still chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and called on business to continuing to articulate the need for meaningful levelling up and devolution.

Although the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove was doing his best, Sir Howard believed the government’s approach was inconsistent. Being surprisingly frank, he believed only a Labour government would really embrace regional inequality. I am still waiting to find out what Sir Keir Starmer’s devolution policy is.

Bernstein still insists that towns are incapable of succeeding without the success of cities but concedes there is better local leadership now leading to the revival of places like Wigan and Bury. He stressed that success didn’t lie in the begging bowl approach. Manchester invested £1.5bn of its own money into transport before getting other grants.

As the dishes were cleared away, Bernstein was getting into his stride. He believed that Johnson lacked real empathy and felt Liz Truss would make a formidable opponent for Labour next time. But who will their leader be, I asked? It is possible a fined Sir Beer Starmer would have to stand down. Sir Howard thinks Andy Burnham has acquired new skills as Mayor that would fit him for the highest office. I raised the “slight” problem that Burnham isn’t an MP and holding up the Labour leadership contest whilst an ageing MP stood down and a by election was held, was clunky. Bernstein did not think it would present a problem.

Sir Howard ended by discussing three specific matters. Manchester Airport has had a rough time. First its business was badly affected by the pandemic. More recently it has been overwhelmed by returning passengers. Bernstein praised the work of Manchester Airport Group Chief Executive Charlie Cornish and believed the airport would soon regain its reputation.

I asked about Mayor Burnham’s volte face on charging motorists entering the Clean Air Zone, now saying the government would have to impose it. This is a sensitive area for Sir Howard who suffered a rare defeat when backing a congestion charge for the conurbation in a 2008 referendum. He now believes devolution of road taxation is the way forward.

Finally on the controversy over how HS2 should come into Piccadilly station, Bernstein backed Mayor Burnham’s demand that it should be underground while Ministers favour an elevated approach.

A lot of ground covered, let’s hope the former Manchester Council CEO is a Downtown guest again soon.

TOUGH ON RUSSIA,BUT IS IT ENOUGH?

UKRAINE AND BREXIT

Boris Johnson this week committed the UK to go to war to defend Finland and Sweden even before they join NATO. Given the volatile situation in Europe, this was a brave or reckless action, depending on your point of view.

I think it was the correct decision in the face of the appalling behaviour of Russia in the Ukraine. Under Johnson, the UK is leading Europe in checking Russian aggression.

However, when it comes to Brexit, the generous wide vision is replaced with duplicity and pettiness. The Northern Ireland protocol is an international treaty. Tearing it up would further damage our international reputation, already harmed by Brexit. Johnson should be facing down the Democratic Unionists with a threat to change the Good Friday agreement to allow parties that are willing to form a government at Stormont to do so. Many businesses are reporting they are thriving as the province benefits from its unique status between the UK and the EU Single Market. The DUP voted for Brexit. They are responsible for the checks which, they say, distance themselves from Great Britain.

LOOKING LOCAL.

The local elections in the North West were not bad enough to get Johnson ejected from Number 10. The picture was varied making them the most interesting for some years.

There was never going to be a landslide of council control damaging the Tories. The partial election system prevents that. There were exceptions where some voters had the whole council in their hands. The new authorities of Cumberland and Westmoreland were bad news for the Tories. Cumberland returned a Labour majority despite the county electing a number of Tory MPs in recent years. Meanwhile Westmoreland and Furness was a Lib Dem triumph.

Rossendale was gained by Labour, but they lost control in Hyndburn and did only OK in places like Wirral and West Lancs. Labour’s biggest disappointment was Bolton where the Conservative minority administration held on. There was consolation in Trafford where Labour made four more gains. The council used to be the jewel in the crown for Conservatives in greater Manchester. Now it shows how professionals and middle-class people are turning away from the sort of Tory Party we now have.

The Lib Dems had a better night at last. After 12 years of punishment at the hands of the voters for student fees and Coalition austerity, they made net gain of eighteen councillors in the North West. They will lead the new Westmoreland Council when it starts next year and have a strong claim to lead a minority administration in Stockport. This should have happened last year, but the Tories have propped up Labour. They lost two Bramall wards to the Lib Dems which should see Mark Hunter installed in a few days as leader.

The Greens are challenging the Lib Dems as potential recipients of the protest vote. They made ten net gains in the North West, but we need to acknowledge the big rise in ultra-local parties. It is a sign of the growing disillusionment with all conventional parties that local champions of communities that feel neglected within district councils made sixteen net gains in the North West. In Bury Radcliffe first now have eight councillors whilst in neighbouring Bolton, Farnworth, Horwich and Little Lever all have councillors in the Town Hall.

So, Johnson carries on scoring well on Ukraine, whilst in his own country Sinn Fein and the SNP threaten the union and people’s standard of living falls through the floor. Interesting times.

QUEEN’S SPEECH BREAKOUT FOR GOV?

LAST FULL LEGISLATIVE PROGRAMME

Following difficult local council results, party gate and MPs sex scandals, the government will be desperate to change the agenda next week.

Their opportunity will come in the Queen’s Speech setting out their programme of bills. It is likely to be the last substantial tranche of legislation before the next election.

The problem is that the cost-of-living crisis which really matters to people is not easily solved by passing new laws, so ministers will have to try and please people in other ways.

Indications are that rather than move to a more consensual middle ground in the run up to the next election, the Queen’s Speech will contain a number of measures with a true-blue tint.

A bill to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights will raise alarm bells, the privatisation of Channel Four is unnecessary, harmful to northern independent production companies and ideologically driven. There will be more support for giving the government the right to override the Parole Board over the release of Tier 1 offenders.

There will also be support for the Economic Crime Bill to further tighten sanctions on the Russians, more power for renters over landlords and a ban on conversion therapy. In the latter case controversy will continue the exclusion of trans people from the bill.

Some measures have been carried over from the last parliamentary session. These include the bill to protect people from online harm, a measure to guarantee free speech on university campuses (it is a scandal that this is even needed) and the legislation paving the way for the HS2 line from Crewe to Manchester. It will be interesting to see whether it will provoke debate over how the line ends at Piccadilly. The government want to bring the line in on an elevated overground route while the local solution is to take it underground.

There is some political significance in what is not going to be before parliament in the coming year. Faced with a choice of backing radical measures to meet the need for new houses or appease Tory backbenchers in their leafy constituencies, the government have backed the later. In place of the planned planning bill there will be a Levelling Up measure. It is not clear what this will contain of importance to the North, but it is expected landlords may be compelled to rent out empty retail units

The Energy bill will also see concessions to backbenchers over on shore windfarms. The knotty issue in this measure will be the government’s attempt to replace gas boilers with heat pumps in millions of homes.

Thankfully there seems little prospect of the government trying to curb judicial review or trying to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol with legislation.

BY ELECTION SPECULATION.

Now that the local polls are out of the way, we can turn our attention to a couple of fascinating by elections. Wakefield and Tiverton provide an ideal opportunity for Labour and the Lib Dems to ambush the Tories.

I would get Ed Balls to stand in Wakefield with a paper Lib Dem candidate whilst Labour would soft pedal in Devon giving the Lib Dems the chance to come from third place to win as they did in North Shropshire.

JUDGEMENT ON LABOUR.

WHERE’S THE SPIRIT OF 95?

Next Thursday’s local elections are in many ways more significant for Labour than the Conservatives. The governing party is expected to do badly midterm and the opposition to sweep all before it.

The conditions for Sir Keir Starmer to do well are all in place. There is a serious standard of living crisis with people not only unable to see their finances getting better, but in many cases worrying whether to heat or eat. The Prime Minister can’t shake off Partygate and many members of the Cabinet don’t seem up to the job.

And yet support for Labour is nowhere near that golden period in the mid-nineties when Macclesfield was the only Tory authority in the North of England. The other problem for the party is that they already control most of the councils that are up for election. This is principally a poll of London and urban England; the Tory heartlands are not up for grabs.

Most of these seats were last contested in 2018. It was only four years ago but much has happened since then. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, did quite well because Prime Minister Theresa May was becoming mired in her attempts to get a Brexit deal.

THE BATTLEGROUND.

Let’s first of all say that there are no elections in Cheshire, or Liverpool. In the latter case that’s probably just as well for Labour. Following numerous scandals, the city is to have all out elections next year. Meanwhile eight Labour councillors have left to form the Liverpool Community Independents having refused to support budget cuts.

Most elections are for a third of the council, a system that is increasingly being criticised as confusing and not allowing for a definitive test of public opinion. The number of councils adopting all out polls is growing, with St Helens adopting that model this year. All outs will also be held in Rochdale and Bury.

Bury has had visits from both Johnson and Starmer, a sure sign that the town is maintaining its reputation as a bellwether of the nation. Labour is in charge, but Independents have been making gains in its stronghold of Radcliffe

The Lib Dems continue to flatline but have some hopes in Stockport. Their bid to lead the hung authority last year was thwarted by the Tories who preferred a Labour minority administration. If the Lib Dems, under their capable leader Mark Hunter, can make a couple of gains, expect him to seek to lead the authority.

Labour’s main target in Greater Manchester is Bolton where the Conservatives are hanging on with just twenty-two of the sixty seats and the support of three other parties.

In Lancashire Labour are targeting Rossendale and West Lancs and hope to make progress in Burnley. Pendle is always in the balance. This time expect the Tories to lose overall control.

Wirral Council should be a pick up for Labour but Greens or even the Tories could deprive them of full power.

Finally, the most dramatic change will be seen in Cumbria. The county and all six district councils are being abolished next year, so elections are taking place for the new unitary councils that will replace them. Cumberland is difficult to call because of the number of independents whilst Westmoreland and Furness could be a battle between the Labour stronghold of Barrow and the Lib Dems in the South Lakes.