There had been so much focus on the Prime Minister bringing more women into the government that it was inevitable the papers would focus in on Esther McVey.

OK perhaps she did milk the photographers’ attention, lingering a little too long on the No 10 doorstep, but the MP for Wirral West is very different in many ways from the average Tory Minister.

We are familiar with her life story. Daughter of a scrap merchant turned property developer, she has run her own business and had a career as a television presenter. With her Liverpool accent, she’s down to earth with the people she meets.

She’s still in her first term in parliament but has had four promotions from parliamentary private secretary to junior minister, Minister of State and now attending Cabinet when her ministerial responsibilities at the Department for Work and Pensions are discussed.

It’s a shame she wasn’t given a full Cabinet place, perhaps replacing Michael Gove at Education, but Esther McVey is now clearly the second most senior Tory in the North West behind the Chancellor and Tatton MP George Osborne.

But who else is in the government from the North?

Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) has taken a whips job, Crewe’s Edward Timpson remains at Education and ex Trafford Council leader Susan Williams holds a government post in the Lords.

However the drive to appoint women and Tory MPs with an ethnic background has left a raft of male and pale MPs disappointed. I’ve selected six North West Conservatives who could easily have been on the ministerial ladder now. Leading the way are Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) and Jake Berry (Rossendale) along with David Rutley (Macclesfield) David Morris (Morecambe) David Mowat (Warrington South) and Graham Evans (Weaver Vale).

The North needs more voices in the corridors of power, especially after the departure of William Hague. I was genuinely shocked that he wanted to give up one of the best jobs in government leave alone quitting politics altogether next year.

The consequence of that is that we have a new Foreign Secretary who has openly contemplated leaving the European Union. The appointment of Philip Hammond and other changes to the government show that David Cameron is determined to try and win next year’s General Election on a highly Eurosceptic platform.

The Attorney General Dominic Grieve was sacked because he warned against plans for the UK government to limit the power of the European Court of Human Rights.

The almost anonymous Lord Hill has been put forward as the UK’s nominee for EU Commissioner. That’s hardly designed to guarantee us a key economic portfolio. If he is put in charge of paper clips then we can have another Juncker style row which will make renegotiating the treaty even harder.

Then there will be the absence of Ken Clarke from the Cabinet table. He would have made a good Prime Minister but paid the price for his pro European views. Now his wise advise for us not to become obsessed with Europe will be absent from the Cabinet table.

Of course the car crash with Europe won’t happen if Labour win the election, but the anti European populist theme that runs through this reshuffle is likely to ensure that doesn’t happen.





The year ends with the Chancellor smirking and Ed Balls going red in the face.


The Tory baiting of Ed Balls during the Autumn Statement debate brought parliament to a new low, but Balls had wound them up for years with his flat lining gestures. They are now redundant. 2013 saw the debate move from double and triple dip recessions to modest optimism about growth. It would be handy if the recovery could be based on manufacturing and exports rather than consumer and housing spending in 2014, but at the moment George Osborne is winning the plaudits. Labour ends the year relying heavily on their argument that the cost of living is the real issue.


This Christmas the Conservatives find themselves in a strange position. They lag behind Labour in the polls but in normal circumstances, they would expect to be able to surge past the opposition with the usual pre election sweeteners in the last full year of the parliament. However uncertainty over UKIP and how they will perform against Lib Dems has led to a pessimistic spirit this festive season.


When the tuition fees issue was at its height, there were forecasts that the Lib Dems would be sending their MPs elected in 2015 to Westminster in a taxi again. This year they showed signs that the darkest years that saw them virtually cleared out of Town Halls in the north may be over. They held the Eastleigh by election and leader Nick Clegg got support for policies at his party conference that would have seen grass roots revolts under previous Lib Dem leaders.


Ed Miliband is never likely to gain the adulation that Tony Blair enjoyed before he took office in 1997 but this year he has strengthened his position as party leader. By focusing on the cost of living he struck a rapport with voters and forced Ministers to take notice. There are many questions around his promise of an energy price freeze but it has made the political weather this autumn.


Miliband also won plaudits for his stance on military intervention in Syria. It led directly to the Americans having second thoughts. Whilst the war drags on and the poor refugees suffer, we are in a better place in the Middle East overall. Chemical weapons have been removed in Syria and the Iranians are coming in from the diplomatic cold.


In local politics we saw the Conservative regime of Geoff Driver defeated in Lancashire whilst two leading females departed in less than happy circumstances. Marie Rimmer lost her battle for the leadership of St Helens Council whilst Salford Chief Executive Barbara Spicer fell out with the Mayor of Salford. Happily Barbara has a new job heading up the Skills Funding Agency. Personnel changes are the least of the problems for Town Halls set against the continuing rounds of spending cuts.



The possibility of an energy gap has become more real this year as we wrestle with the problem of keeping prices down whilst dealing with global warming. The weather was rarely out of the headlines in 2013. A bitter winter was followed by a great summer. The Philippines typhoon was followed by a major battering for the coasts of the North West and Yorkshire. Fracking and nuclear power have risen up the agenda this year.


We are likely to be better connected after decisions taken in 2013. Final plans for the new Mersey Gateway Bridge were approved; the northern Rail Hub in Manchester got the green light; and consultations began on HS2.


The year saw the death of two of the twentieth century’s great figures; Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher. Their politics were very different but they both made a difference and that’s all we can hope to do each in our own way.


Have a peaceful Christmas






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.




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.




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.




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.





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.


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