I still expect The Prime Minister to just find a majority for her vision of Brexit in the next three months. But having been right on the 2016 Referendum, I am probably heading for an “egg on my face moment”.

My prediction is based on the parliamentary arithmetic which suggests that Mrs May’s deal has more support than any of the other options. She is currently well short of the 320 she needs. However, her opponents are not close to agreeing an alternative whether that be, delaying our departure, a hard Brexit, hard Brexit with side deals, second referendum, Labour or a national government renegotiating the terms, Norway or Canada options. Before Christmas there seemed to be a majority to stop a hard Brexit if Mrs May’s deal was voted down. That can only be done by changing the law and laws can only be changed by a government not the House of Commons.

A recent survey suggested the Prime Minister could rely on 150 MPs in the Brexit Delivery Group. It also identified 65 waverers. I think the eerie calm that descended on the Brexit debate over Christmas may have led many of those into the May camp. Then there was a 20 strong group described as nervous Tory Remainers. As the clock ticks down, they may well head into the government’s camp.

Then we come to the Democratic Unionists, only ten of them but much more influential. If they can get the sort of annex of assurance over the backstop that the European Commission has a track record for producing, they could be brought on side. If this were to happen it would be hugely influential on Tory waverers and some Labour MPs. It is to Labour that we must now turn.

Given that the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid and the Green’s Caroline Lucas are going to vote against May’s deal, the largest bloc in her way is the 257 strong Labour Party. Some of them, especially in seats that voted to leave will come under increasing pressure to support the May deal as the government plays for time.

Nevertheless, a majority will stay loyal to the Corbyn strategy which is to cynically get us out of the EU whilst having no part in the Brexit deal and thus being able to criticise it from March 30th.

Labour will probably be joined by a group of Tory diehard Brexiteers. 117 Conservative MPs voted against her in last month’s leadership election but that does not mean they will all vote against her EU deal. The argument that their hard line could lead to Brexit not happening will erode their numbers to the point where I think Mrs May will squeak home, but it will be close.


Let us hope that if we get through the immediate Brexit crisis that other things can be attended to like social care, housing and a boost for devolution. The Northern Powerhouse project has taken a credibility blow because of the chaos on road and rail. We need a renewal of the debate around regional government and in the meantime devolution agreements for Yorkshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and Warrington/Cheshire.

We will see what the public have made of our departure from the EU in the local elections in May. A third of the seats are up in our metropolitan and unitary councils with all out polls in the two Cheshire authorities and Blackpool.

We won’t be taking part in the democratic elections to the European Parliament in May because we’ve decided not to shape anymore the EU laws that will continue to affect our lives one way or another.

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The days of John Prescott thumping the table and demanding power for the North are long gone according to the people now in charge of devolution. Instead of the Hull bruiser we have the softly spoken Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle Council and his friend with the money, Nigel Wilson. He’s North East born Nigel Wilson, Chief Executive of Legal and General.

These gents were the keynote speakers at the first Convention of the North held in Gateshead last week. They were full of optimism with Forbes keen to stress that we can do a lot of things for ourselves without being reliant on central government. Wilson claimed there was plenty of private sector money waiting to be invested in projects in the North.

When I questioned these speakers, I ended up feeling a bit Eeyoreish because my view was that this Convention was being held at a difficult time for devolution and the Northern Powerhouse (NP).

Most people in the North voted to leave the EU. This wasn’t just an expression of disillusion with Brussels, but Westminster too. But convincing people to have faith in northern powerhouses and conventions is proving difficult. People take little interest in the structures of government. This perhaps explains why the, once a year Convention, has not put in place a representative assembly as suggested by some.

But the other reason why devolution has a bad name at the moment is the sclerotic rail and road system in the North. Over three years ago connectivity was identified as the top priority for the NP, linking up the major cities of the north that enjoyed proximity but were poorly connected. The dreadful experience of people this summer on the trains has left many people asking if northern devolution means anything.

The Convention for the North aims to give a voice to the whole area from the Scottish Border to the Humber and Mersey. The NP tended to focus on the cities only. Civic leaders, and representatives of business, the unions and civil society stakeholders came to Gateshead for this purpose.

But the approach is to be cautious. Cllr Forbes told me the Convention would not be a vehicle for whingeing to the government about how bad things are in the north. “We can do it for ourselves” the leader of Newcastle told me.

But can they? The conference documents were littered with reform the Convention wants and only the government can grant. Reform of the Apprenticeship Levy, sharing regional funds that currently come from the EU and more transport powers to name but a few.

It is true that Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese gained many powers for Greater Manchester by a cooperative approach to Whitehall. But crucially they had a sympathetic person at the highest level of government sitting across the table in the shape of Chancellor George Osborne.

Cllr Forbes and his colleagues are facing a government distracted by Brexit and, if anything, prioritising the Midlands Engine.

However, the Convention of the North is in place. Let us hope the private sector step up to the plate with investment that used to come from London and let us also hope that promises made in Gateshead to make all this relevant to ordinary people are fulfilled.

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Business people are rightly sceptical when politicians propose setting up new tiers of governance. But at a convention in Gateshead next week a Council of the North is expected to be set up comprising six combined authorities, three county councils and 10 unitary authorities.

The idea is to give a collective voice to the partial devolution that has taken place in most parts of the area stretching from the Scottish border to Crewe and Hull.

The issues to be discussed are important to business, transport, skills, health, advanced manufacturing, energy, trade and investment. It will be essential that business people are closely involved and that the Council of the North does not just become a talking shop for the usual suspects of council leaders and mayors.

Since the clear framework of Regional Development Agencies and the Northern Way was scrapped in 2010, the government has proceeded with a dog’s dinner of Local Enterprise Partnerships, elected mayors and Combined Authorities. However, this is what we have to work with now and a Council of the North will hopefully help bring some coherence to it all as it speaks to London.

There is also to be a Northern Citizens’ Assembly. It is very important that people have a sense of ownership of devolution, but the politicians must listen to them. Let us hope it is a diverse Assembly. Devolution gatherings generally attract the male and pale.


The Council of the North’s task will be complicated by the slow progress in completing Combined Authority or unitary council models across the whole area.

Warrington and Cheshire (which I looked at last week) has a thriving economy but separate councils and an LEP. Cumbria has had three failed attempts at creating one or two unitary councils. Agreement on a future model still seems some way off in Lancashire and Yorkshire but Combined Authorities are working effectively in the North East and Tees Valley.

In Greater Manchester and Merseyside, the elected mayors have established themselves but will, no doubt, be telling next week’s NorthernConvention of the North that they want more power given to Transport For The North(TfN) and more influence to them over skills.


This organisation is already operating across the area that the Council of the North seeks to cover. It will be telling delegates about the seven “corridors of opportunity” where better connectivity is vital.

But TfN will be under pressure over the recent mayhem on the existing railways and from the conurbation mayors on specific matters. Steve Rotheram (Liverpool City Region Mayor) wants proper links to HS2 and a new station as Lime Street is up to capacity. He would not tell me at a recent conference where this should be sited.

Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) has a top priority about getting Network Rail and the Highways Agency to work together particularly over the big issue of Trans Pennine connectivity by road and rail.


So, let’s wish the Council of the North well. Let’s hope it listens to ordinary people and business. Then it might be able to get the tin ears in Whitehall to realise that a balanced economy is the only way to try and counteract the economic problems we are going to face post Brexit.

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Early next month the movers and shakers of the Northern Powerhouse (NP) will meet in Gateshead for the first Northern Convention. Its aim will be to inject some impetus into the badly stalled project.

The loss of its champion, George Osborne, at the highest level of government, the distractions of Brexit, the rise of the Midlands Engine have all contributed to a sense that NP amounts to lots of fine words and little action to help people and business.

Connecting the close, but isolated, northern cities was at the heart of the NP vision. Transport for the North has been created and is doing good work. However, any good news from that area has been completely overwhelmed by the awful experiences of train passengers this summer on the northern networks. It is not just rail. Having been stationary on the M6 last week for two hours, my impression is that our motorways are getting worse not better.

Next month’s Northern Convention has a big job to do to address the cynicism that surrounds devolution after the rail debacle. Its vision is wider than the Northern Powerhouse which has tended to focus on the urban strip from Liverpool to Hull. It wants to speak for the whole of the North, including Tyne and Wearside, with a clear message to London that much more needs to be done to redress the imbalances in the English economy.

This week and next I’m going to take a look at the State of the North. I’ll begin with an area that is sometimes overlooked, but not by Downtown in Business which has recently set up a new network in Chester.

According to the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, the sub region has a £29bn economy. It has the second highest Gross Value Added outside London. It has 25% of the North West’s manufacturing output and more graduate level jobs than anywhere in the North.

There is a belief that Cheshire is a dormitory for Manchester and Liverpool. In fact, according to the LEP, more people travel to work in Cheshire and Warrington than go to the cities. The sub region is strong in manufacturing, life sciences, energy, chemicals, business services and (particularly in Warrington), distribution.

There are challenges. A lack of the right skills, congestion and lack of housing at the right price. There are plans for 127,000 new homes.

The three major conurbations are all faced with the challenges of the retail revolution but have business plans for the future. In the case of Crewe, they will play a central role in the Constellation Project which is focussed around the arrival of HS2. Warrington has its New City plans and Chester’s £300 million Northgate scheme will deliver a mix of retail, restaurant and leisure facilities.

There is still no sign of a Combined Authority for this sub region. There have been issues around an elected mayor and the politics are difficult. Cheshire East is a solidly Conservative council recently wracked by officer turmoil. Cheshire West and Chester is finely balanced with Labour in control at the moment. Labour chiefs in Warrington say they can see the benefits of a Combined Authority but remain confident they can progress without one.

So that’s the picture in the south west corner of the Northern Powerhouse. Next week I’ll look at the rest.

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