Mrs May could get her deal through on March 12th. A legally binding codicil to the Withdrawal Agreement stating that the backstop will not be permanent is the most that we can expect to break the log jam. Then Tory hardliners should vote for it, along with Labour Leavers.

If they don’t parliament will vote against No Deal on March 13th and then we would come to a real crunch the following day when an extension to Article 50 will be voted on. It is not certain the government would whip in favour of it, but presuming they do, that opens a whole range of possibilities. The EU could refuse a short extension if they think it is just for more wrangling. They could propose a long extension, which would not get through parliament.

If parliament has then rejected May’s Deal, No Deal and an extension, support for Labour’s new position of supporting a People’s Vote will rise, although I can’t see parliament approving it. So, a hard Brexit by default could happen.


While the parliamentary pantomime continues, business is wringing its hands.

After Brexit firms are likely to face skill shortages as our immigration policy tightens, so it is even more pressing that we address the skills gap in this country.

I attended a BBC event this week focusing on the problem in the digital sector which is growing in importance. With Media City in Salford, the Sharp project in Manchester, Liverpool’s strong cultural sector and Channel 4’s move to Leeds, the North has great potential in one of the industries of the future. But as with other sectors, a lack of skills is the issue.

It is a puzzle because young people are entirely comfortable with new technology when it comes to laptops and mobiles. The problem identified at the BBC event was matching them to the needs of media and digital industries.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, illustrated the problem when he visited a school in Oldham and the children told him that they didn’t think the digital/media opportunities in Manchester and Salford were for them. The mayor felt the problem was that these industries depend on contacts on the inside, so he urged companies to back shadow working schemes for young people. It is not a new idea and depends on firms making a real effort to make it a quality experience, but Burnham sees it as a contribution to his drive to build the digital future in the conurbation. That would also depend on the government devolving powers over education and skills tot eh Combined Authority, a demand also made by Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram.

Chris Cordon should be an inspiration to young people. He was born in Salford, went to London because that’s where the jobs were, and has now returned as Director of BBC Digital. His department services BBC News, Sport, Weather etc and has 100m users every week. He wants the inspiration to start in secondary, even primary, schools. Talking to graduates is leaving it too late.

The meeting heard criticism of the school career advice service for being uninspiring or ignorant of the digital revolution.

The whole event was a reminder that after Brexit, a number of big challenges await.

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Downtown is always ahead of the game, so this week even before George Osborne identified educational attainment as the biggest issue in the North-South divide, a Manchester Downtown event had the benefit of an interesting debate about education. Our guest was Henri Murison. He heads up Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP) think tank. Osborne has focused on the poorer attainment record of kids in the North compares with the South.

Our debate looked at the next stage. Should school leavers choose university or the alternatives of vocational or degree apprenticeships? If I was in charge of one of our traditional northern universities I would be worried. “Go off to university and accumulate some debt” wasn’t always the best advice. Many employers in the room would encourage youngsters to particularly look at degree apprenticeships. Combining on the job working with part time study, students had the advantage of becoming job ready and avoiding the growing burden of tuition fees. It was felt it might also help prevent the talent drain to the south on the basis that if someone was learning a trade with a northern employer, they were more likely to stay after they had qualified. Murison warned that the South East would become even more aggressive at pulling talent down the M6 (and eventually HS2) in the post Brexit world when the migrant labour the South East relied on became scarcer.

The meeting also took stock of progress with the Northern Powerhouse. Murison admitted there had been something of a vacuum after George Osborne had left office. The NPP had been set up to keep the flame alive. Osborne’s speech on the pupil attainment divide on Thursday was part of that.

Transport for the North has been the most obvious manifestation of the Northern Powerhouse so far but there’s a growing feeling that people need to be skilled up as well as connected up and the former needs greater priority than it has been getting.

I wish the Northern Powerhouse well but still think its priorities and organisation needs the transparency and profile an elected Northern Council would give it.


100 years ago next week women got the vote. There will be lots of debate in the next few days about what difference that has made to politics and wider public life.

We will perhaps conclude that women have still got to fight all the way for their rights. The controversy over equal pay for BBC editors, the President’s Club scandal and Manchester Council rightly acting to stop women having to walk the gauntlet of pro life campaigners shows there is much to be done.

Life remains tough for women in politics. Mrs May continues to be hounded by Brexit extremists. My feeling is that the public see a woman trying to do her best in difficult circumstances. Then we have Claire Kober, one of the few women leaders of a local council (Haringey) resigning, complaining of Corbynista sexist bullying.

Left and Right, shame on your both.

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As the skills and productivity crisis deepens, the Department for Education has come under savage attack from the mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City region.

Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are getting into their stride in speaking for the North on a range of issues as was evidenced at a packed Downtown meeting this week. There wasn’t a single reference to strained relations between the core cities of Liverpool and Manchester, just a demonstration of the easy relationship that the two politicians share. This is important for the northern voice. Oh, that it was replicated in Yorkshire where rival councils are knocking nine bells out of each other over devolution models. Or in Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria where to describe progress on devolution as glacial would be to insult those magnificent features of the natural world.

After their election in May both men had very different starts. Burnham acquired a large staff at his Oxford Street headquarters in Manchester, although he said he envied Rotheram’s ability to shape his own team. That was a reference to the “Mary Celeste” situation faced by the Liverpool City Region mayor when he took office. Rotheram inherited no staff and a difficult relationship with Liverpool city mayor Joe Anderson.

Both men were just back from visits to Paris and New York and have realised that they need to impress the world, not just the government, that the North is a great place to invest in.

Raising skill levels is one of their main aims and you’d think the Department for Education would be an ally. Not so apparently. Rotheram said it was the least responsive department in Whitehall and needed a good kicking. The mayors wanted to control skills spending locally and show young people that there are routes to success other than through university by boosting vocational training. Burnham had been to his kid’s Year 9 options meeting where the ICT teacher had no takers while the pupils queued for humanities subjects.

Now in office the mayors want to tone down the politics to appeal to business. They feel firms in the two sub regions would feel more comfortable dealing with them than the highly politically charged Westminster village. They are working with other elected mayors including West Midlands Tory Mayor Andy Street.

Transport is another area where the mayors have given a voice to the North. With Downtown providing the launch pad they had launched a salvo of criticism over the government’s broken promises in the summer. They claimed it had born fruit to some extent with Liverpool City Region getting two “touch points” with HS2 and the Chancellor announcing a £400m cash boost for northern transport at the party conference. All well and good but still small potatoes compared with transport spending in London.

While stressing that their door was open to business, the mayors fired a shot across the bows of house builders saying the emphasis on developers needs had to change to provide the affordable housing that is in short supply. Andy Burnham made a striking remark that may meet with a mixed reception in his outer boroughs. He said they needed to shrink their retail offer and increase the space for housing.

Finally, on Brexit, the mayors had recently met with Brexit Minister David Davis. Burnham had told him that Greater Manchester exported 58% of its exports to the EU compared with the national average of 44%. No deal would be a very bad deal for him. Rotheram, also a Remainer, nevertheless said the port of Liverpool stood ready to welcome global opportunities post Brexit.

It is too early to say whether these politicians will actually deliver their visions, but people can begin to see how City Region mayors might make a difference in the absence of what we really need, which is powerful regional government.

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