The Prime Minister goes to the country in a snap General Election appealing for support across party lines. The Irish border is a major issue in the campaign. Labour is led by a man whose leadership qualities are questionable. Meanwhile the Liberal centrist tradition is weak.

I speak not of now but of the General Election of December 1918, exactly a hundred years ago. In the wake of the Great War, Lloyd George put himself at the head of a coalition that cut across Tory and Liberal loyalties. Coupons were issued to Conservative and Liberal candidates who supported the Prime Minister. The result was good for Lloyd George personally. He remained Prime Minister, but he split his Liberal Party sending them on a spiral to obscurity from which they briefly recovered in the 2010 Coalition government.

Then as now the future of Ireland was a big issue. It was the last election where the whole of Ireland took part. It saw a huge surge in Sinn Fein support which led, four years later, to the creation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland separated by that border which is at the heart of the current Brexit crisis.

The Labour leader in the election was a man called William Adamson who had emerged as leader following a faction fight in 1917. Few would have tipped him for Labour leader but, as with Jeremy Corbyn, circumstances provide surprise leaders.


Downtown in Business maintained its tradition of hosting ground breaking events this week. I had the pleasure of hosting a members’ dinner where our guests were two of the top people in Network Rail (NR).

NR has been subject to criticism by the elected mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram argue that democratic devolution cannot fully be realised whilst bodies like NR and the Highways Agency remain outside the direct influence of democratically elected local politicians. Decisions on road and rail investment have a huge impact on our lives and should be integrated into the city region’s governance arrangements, so the mayors’ argument goes.

I think NR has been seen as remote and unaccountable because of a reluctance to engage fully in debate and explain their side of the story. That is changing, and Downtown was chosen as the forum where two top NR executives were prepared to face a range of questions from Downtown business people who all had their stories of cancelled and overcrowded trains.

Patrick Cawley, who oversees big projects, was frank about things that had gone wrong. For instance, delays in completing work on the Preston-Manchester line was at the heart of the summer crisis. Old mine workings turned out to be far more extensive than originally envisaged. Lessons had been learnt for the introduction of the next set of timetable changes shortly.

The NR executives wouldn’t be drawn into the politics of reintegrating the rail network with the operating companies or Labour’s plan for renationalisation. But it became clear that NR have to wrestle with changing government decisions. The full electrification of the Leeds- Manchester line being a case in point. Through all the uncertainty caused by the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, NR continues to draw up plans.

I got the impression NR are happy to engage with the city region mayors while pointing out that they have to take national considerations into account at the same time.

Cawley stressed that the need for HS2 was one of capacity rather than speed and the evening ended with an appeal from NR’s David Golding for more private sector investment in rail projects. Business finance could give a major boost to areas around stations. The retail transformation of Birmingham New Street was given as an example. Similar opportunities are looming at Piccadilly Manchester although there are sharp disagreements among the parties involved over how HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail are going to be successfully integrated.

Anyway, it was good to see Network Rail talking frankly about its complex problems. May this open approach continue.

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The key question for the Northern Powerhouse concept is this, how can all the fancy talk about vision for the future economic prosperity of the North have any credibility when chaos and suffering is the every day experience of train and car drivers?

I was looking forward to hearing Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, speak at a major transport conference I attended this week in Manchester. He didn’t turn up because the government chose to hold the vote on the third runway at Heathrow on Monday. Two things about that. The debate didn’t have to be on Monday and the symbolism of yet another major London transport project getting the Transport Secretary’s attention ahead of coming north seems to have escaped him.

At least Grayling was present for the Heathrow vote. Boris Johnson’s escape to Afghanistan when he had promised to lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop the runway being built, must surely have irreparably damaged this buffoon’s chances of being Prime Minister.

Government presentation managers might think they are being clever by convenient management of Ministers diaries, but they aren’t. Grayling’s replacement at the conference Baroness Sugg is the aviation minister. She spoke for ten minutes, wouldn’t take questions and left. It says it all.

Northern Rail also ducked the conference. Its boss, David Brown, has been a rising star in the northern transport world. His reputation is now in jeopardy.

The various absentees left an open goal for the mayors of the two North West Metro Regions. Steve Rotheram said people could be driven off the trains for good. The Liverpool Metro mayor turned his attention to Network Rail. Their failure to complete the electrification of the Manchester-Blackpool line was a key factor in the chaos. He said their structure was opaque and not fit for purpose.

Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) said a Mayoral Transport Board had been set up with Network Rail and Highways England to try to bring some accountability but then he came to the central point of all this. How can the Northern Powerhouse have credibility when this chaos is going on? Burnham said the progress of four years ago was going backwards.

Although there are many organisations to blame for the intolerable rail chaos that seems to be easing at last, the buck stops with the government. Whitehall has failed the North over transport for decades over investment in electrification, coaches and stations. Northern Powerhouse devolution has given some responsibility to Transport for the North and Transport for Greater Manchester, but the Transport Secretary is still involved in major decisions like cancelling electrification between Manchester and Leeds and the Ordsall Curve scandal. The promised platform improvements at Piccadilly were cancelled by Mr Grayling, massively reducing the effectiveness of the new link to Victoria station.

There are suggestions the rail chaos will rumble on until November when the inquiry into the fiasco will report. What’s the betting that the report will just lead to buck passing when what we need is urgent action before the Northern Powerhouse becomes an empty joke.

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The May government is rattled by the growing perception that they are not serious about the Northern Powerhouse. So, it perhaps would have been easier for the Conservatives to be meeting in their other conference city, Birmingham. The city has been confirmed as the UK candidate for the 2022 Commonwealth Games following the election of a Tory West Midlands mayor. In Greater Manchester we elected Andy Burnham who has expressed his outrage at the decision to downgrade the electrification of the Leeds-Manchester rail line whilst giving the go ahead to Crossrail 2 in London.

We know the government is rattled because last week I was present at a meeting in Manchester where the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, came out fighting over his government’s transport spending. He told a startled business audience that he was going to slay some myths and rattled off a whole series of road improvements from Cumbria to Cheshire before tackling rail. His argument seems to be that electrification could be an old hat solution and bi-modal trains with state of the art technology could be the answer.

The issue is sure to come up at a conference where the Tories are reeling on many fronts. Whereas I saw Jeremy Corbyn lauded at every turn in Brighton for losing the General Election, Theresa May comes to Manchester having “won” but with the worst Conservative campaign in living memory. The Tories are past masters at preventing unrest breaking out on the conference floor but there is sure to be some raking over of the General Election coals at the fringe meetings.

Europe will also be an issue to watch at the Manchester conference. The prospect of us effectively being in the European Union until 2021 has angered the hardline Brexiteers. There will be plenty of them in Manchester Central. The Tory activists who come to conference have always been very Eurosceptic.

Besides the Northern Powerhouse, the poor election campaign and Europe, the main challenge for the Tories this weekend will be to answer the growing opposition to austerity and cuts. Labour is shamelessly promising everything to everyone, even acknowledging that if they came to power there could well be a massive run on the pound. Nevertheless, they seem to have caught a tide of opinion against pay curbs, high rents and homelessness. The Tories’ austerity programme has been in place for over seven years now and people are fed up. There are some signs that ministers are recognising this but that can spell danger. Small concessions don’t necessarily assuage the anger. They can make matters worse as workers take industrial action to push for more and the uncertain tone from ministers gives the impression that the government is running out of ideas and is past its sell by date.

Jeremy Corbyn said in Brighton that he was a Prime Minister in waiting. It was a bold, some would say fanciful claim, but if the Cabinet infighting over Europe doesn’t stop, if the cracks are on display in Manchester, there can be no certainty over what might happen this winter.

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Since Parliament has gone into recess, hardly a day has passed without a significant policy announcement by ministers. They’ve ranged from banning petrol driven cars by 2040, to transport announcements that have the potential to drain the Northern Powerhouse (NP) of any meaning.

With MPs, away from Westminster and unable to call the government immediately to account, elected mayors and council leaders across the North have had to promise a summit in late August. Let’s hope that the current angry mood will not have turned to dull resignation.

The betrayal by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is breath-taking. He has rowed back on plans for new platforms at Manchester Piccadilly station, said “bi-mode” trains will do on the Manchester-Leeds line rather than full electrification and downgraded rail schemes in Cumbria. At the same time the government announced their support for a £30bn Crossrail 2 project in London.

A few weeks ago, I challenged the chair of Transport for the North (TFN) John Cridland at a major conference on transport about the Treasury rules that will always mean that London schemes meet investment criteria because of the millions of commuters compared to the needs of the North. Cridland remained optimistic and TFN were urged by Manchester City Region mayor Andy Burnham to persuade the government to look at other criteria for justifying transport spending like economic return.

I said in a blog a few weeks ago that the acid test of the government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse would be whether Crossrail 2 or Trans Pennine investment would come first. Well now we know.

The whole Northern Powerhouse project is in serious trouble. Good connectivity between northern cities is the bedrock of the whole scheme. The new NP Minister, Rossendale MP Jake Berry is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile Business Secretary Greg Clarke made his industrial strategy speech on investment in battery power in Birmingham this week. Ever since Theresa May came to power there has been a pivot from the North to the Midlands.

Let’s hope the summit backed by all the northern cities at the end of next month gets some answers from ministers.



It is always a shame when people abuse employment rights. But that was why the Coalition government brought in fees to deter vexatious employees and chancers who were taking employers to tribunals in droves. In 2012/13 191,541 cases were lodged before fees were levied. The latest figure is 88,000 which is high enough and by the way, fees were often reimbursed if the grievance was genuine.

Small businesses are set to be hardest hit as claims from aggrieved employees soar again. With Brexit uncertainty as well, it is not a good time to be in business.

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