Hancock’s Half Page

CAN LANCASHIRE HAVE CAKE AND EAT IT?

PARTYGATE UPDATE.

I want to get away from partygate this week save to say that I think the pressure on the Prime Minister has eased. The ridiculously named “Save Big Dog” initiative which mostly involves starting to destroy the BBC, has certainly distracted the Corporation. Dominic Cummings is increasingly seen as a man consumed by a vendetta. Starmer’s office drink, whilst minor compared to the Downing Street parties is awkward and I remain convinced the Gray Report won’t nail Johnson.

LANCASHIRE DEVOLUTION.

For years, the various councils in Lancashire have squabbled over what to do in response to the devolution deals obtained by Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

Now they have produced a plan which preserves all fifteen councils, rejects the concepts of elected mayor and Combined Authority but still asks the government for £5.6bn for transport, skills, and housing.

Decisions on how that fund would be spent would need a two thirds majority of the councils agreeing. I’m not clear on the weighting of the votes between the large Lancashire County Council, the unitaries of Blackburn and Blackpool and the much smaller districts from Wyre to West Lancashire. I am clear that two thirds could be quite difficult to achieve considering the differing interests and the fact that, at the moment, the county is Tory and most of the others Labour.

Will the government approve this novel plan? Ministers have dropped their insistence on elected mayors and combined authorities after the Prime Minister said last year that it was up to each sub region to produce its own plan.

However, this scheme does not address the fundamental issue that Lancashire is over governed. Cheshire functions very well with four councils, so why does Lancashire need fifteen county, unitary and district councils?

Rationalisation of local government was one of the aims of devolution, but I always thought the piecemeal approach of Ministers was going to end up with the chaotic patchwork we have across the country. The clear vision of the Heath government in the 1970s and the planned (although thwarted) approach of John Prescott at the turn of the century was the right way of doing this.

It remains to be seen whether the government consider granting Lancashire’s scheme will be seen as part of the levelling up agenda for towns away from the big cities or they feel that reorganisation hasn’t been addressed and it is a recipe for further squabbling over where the money should be spent.

SMALL FIRMS COMING UP FOR AIR.

Plans to introduce charges for high-emission buses and lorries travelling in Greater Manchester from this summer have left small businesses choking.

The government have ordered the mayor, Andy Burnham, to introduce a Clean Air Zone and it is due to cover the whole county. Vehicles could be charged between £7.50 and £60 a day although £132m of government funding has been earmarked for those most affected.

Greater Manchester’s Tory MPs have called for a rethink and Burnham wants more money to help older vehicle owners.

The issue spreads beyond the county with small businesses in Cheshire East and Warrington who travel in and out of the county, up in arms too.

With so many people wanting to work from home, the fumes will disappear!

JUST JIM 480.

“WORN OUT DEFENDING THE INDEFENSIBLE.”

GO NOW!

William Wragg has risen rapidly to be a senior Tory backbencher since his election for Hazel Grove seven years ago. He chairs a select committee and is a vice chair of the influential 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers. It is chaired by Sir Graham Brady, his neighbouring MP in Altrincham and Sale West.

Sir Graham is receiving the letters from Conservative backbenchers who want to rid themselves of their lying leader, Boris Johnson. It is a safe bet that Wragg has passed an envelope to Brady having said he is weary of defending the indefensible. He was referring to the series of revelations about Downing Street parties being held. Meanwhile law-abiding citizens couldn’t hold their loved one’s hands as they died of Covid, and thousands were fined for meeting their neighbours.

He was unimpressed as the truth was finally dragged out of Johnson yesterday that he had attended another illegal party at No 10. His apologists keep telling us how gracious the Prime Minister’s apology was. What would have been more impressive would have been a frank statement about all the law breaking at the heart of government when the story broke before Christmas. Instead, Johnson preferred to go from one obfuscation to another, when it was clear what answers parliament wanted.

Wragg is one of many northern Conservatives that can see the writing on the wall for Red Wall seats in the North. But he is not just motivated by electoral concerns, but also for decent standards in his party.

MOTOR MOUTH MOGG.

It really felt like the desperation of a dying regime when Commons leader William Rees Mogg described the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross as “a lightweight.”

The spectacle of a man who goes out of his way to display the sort of pin stripe English arrogance that Scots despise, insulting Ross for calling for Johnson to go, could well lead to the Scottish Tories splitting away.

In the Commons on Thursday, Mogg questioned whether the 2020 rules were too tough in hindsight. Could this be a clever ruse to put Johnson’s breaking of the rules in a more sympathetic context?

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Well don’t rule out Johnson surviving! A senior civil servant, Sue Gray, has been charged with investigating the mess.

The problem is she reports to the Prime Minister, and we know how these things have turned out in the past. When Home Secretary Priti Patel was found to have broken the ministerial code over bullying Johnson ignored the finding and kept Patel on. With the scandal over No 10 refurbishments, The Prime Minister waited until he had been largely cleared by Lord Geidt before finding texts on an old mobile that could have led the peer to a different conclusion.

If the Gray report even hints that the No 10 Garden was a workplace and it was some sort of work event that Johnson was confused about, you watch him escape again.

If Gray’s statement of the facts leaves Johnson no way out, we may be rid of him by Spring.

TURNING POINT….OR MORE OF THE SAME ?

THE PANDEMIC AND JOHNSON.

It is two long years since the Chinese city of Wuhan loomed into our consciousness as the pandemic broke out. For two years we have been able to talk of little else in relation to our family life, our businesses, our politics.

We are all so fed up with it that it is everyone’s prayer that the Omicron variant is the last. However, one has a nagging fear that it won’t be.

Let’s work on the optimistic assumption that we will be able to return to normal later this year and manage Covid-19 like the many other viruses that afflict, but don’t overwhelm humanity.

That is the fervent wish of the Prime Minister who has found it difficult to display his swashbuckling libertarian style while telling people to stay at home. It is difficult to believe that he will make so many crass mistakes this year. If the pandemic retreats, he will be thanked for the spectacular vaccination programme and resisting tight lockdown demands. People won’t forget the illegal parties in Downing Street and the hypocrisy of the people involved, but voters will have other things to concern them.

THE ECONOMY STUPID.

Chief among these will be the cost of living. Inflation could be at 6% by Easter, the highest since John Major’s time. Soaring energy costs will be a huge challenge for business and domestic customers. National Insurance is due to go up 1.25% shortly with the Chancellor indicating he’s not for turning on that or in favour of removing VAT on energy bills.

It could all mean the average family £1200 worse off and that would spell trouble for any government. Let alone one lead by a man like Boris Johnson. His boosterism will seem misplaced with food banks growing and people having to choose between eating and heating.

Business will also be wrestling with the full effects of Brexit. Trade has already slumped with the EU and mountains of form filling await those still brave enough to trade with our near neighbours. What a joke Brexit is!

The North also awaits with less than bated breath the White Paper on Levelling Up. This concept has now become the butt of jokes. Perhaps the new Secretary of State responsible for devolution, Michael Gove, can put some flesh on Johnson’s skeleton.

LOCAL POLLS.

The local elections will be more important for Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer than Boris Johnson. Governments are expected to take a beating midterm, but so far Labour’s local election performance in opposition has been patchy. Starmer needs thumping victories to bake in the modest lead in the opinion polls he has belatedly achieved.

In the North West such gains are going to be difficult to demonstrate as the party is in control of most councils after 12 years in opposition. Labour will want to take full control of Bolton, Wirral, Burnley, and West Lancashire and win the all-out election for Cumbria. The county is then expected to be split into unitaries on which the elected councillors will serve.

Liverpool will have no elections this year pending a full shake up of voting arrangements next year.

THE WORLD.

President Macron has begun his election year in France by saying he wants to p… off people who aren’t vaccinated. An interesting start. He’ll probably win as the runoff is usually against a neo fascist.

I’m worried about the usual issues around Russian and Chinese intentions but more so by the United States. It is quite possible that Republican victories in mid term elections in November will leave Biden as a lame duck. More importantly the Republicans coming into Congress will all be Trump supporters still denying the 2020 result.

Happy New Year!

A DEPRESSING YEAR.

I’ll be glad to see the back of 2021, not that I have great hopes that much will change in the new year.

The year ended with the Omicron virus taking business and people for a third time into some form of lockdown and a Prime Minister with an increasingly tenuous hold on power.

The year began with a man wearing a horned helmet invading the American Congress building to keep The Donald in power, and it went downhill from there really.

The pandemic has continued to dominate all our lives. After a hard winter, we hoped the spectacular vaccination programme would ensure a return to something like normal life. Instead at the turn of the year, it feels we may be heading back to square one. The former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is right when he says that nobody is safe until everybody in the world is safe. I do not understand why the international effort to vaccinate has been so poor.

Politically it has been a year of shame and stagnation in this country. The government has been constantly assailed by allegations of sleaze whilst the opposition has hardly laid a glove on them. The behaviour of the Prime Minister is partly conditioned by seeing no threat from Labour and endless years in power.

The bright spot in a dark foreign landscape has been Joe Biden’s first year in office. He may be succumbing to his years, but he is a welcome change after the Trump mayhem. He has initiated an infrastructure programme to rival FDR’s New Deal in the thirties. It is likely to be his biggest achievement as the Republicans are likely to make gains in the mid term elections and create stalemate in Congress.

Elsewhere it was mostly bad news with the Taliban back in charge in Afghanistan and China and Russia flexing their muscles in dangerous ways. The Merkel years in Germany came to an end and although the new German Chancellor has had to build a complex coalition, stability is expected to remain the order of the day.

The UK economy bounced back after the worst of the pandemic had passed but that has created its own problems with labour shortages, supply train issues and warnings about inflation. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak is determined not to be saddled with a reputation as a high spending, big state Tory. He is already flagging up that he wants to cut taxes before the 2024 election. He may be in Number 10 by then as well.

The year began with the final moves to sever our links with the EU in respect of the single market and customs union. The pandemic has masked the damage Brexit has done to Britain but the dispute over Northern Ireland tariffs shows that Brexit is far from done.

The North West’s year is best told through the fortunes of various women. Our two big cities have new leaders. Bev Craig took over after decades of Sir Richard Leese leading Manchester. Meanwhile Joanne Anderson’s arrival as elected mayor of Liverpool followed a controversial selection process as the city’s Labour Party was subject to severe criticism in two reports. At least Louise Ellman felt able to rejoin the party she left over anti semitism.

Phillippa Williamson heads up the Conservatives in Lancashire after local elections failed to deliver much midterm cheer for Labour. The worry for Boris Johnson at the moment is coming from the Red Wall seats he won where Tories are unhappy with the non-delivery of levelling up

The big issues of climate change and social care remain unsolved. Like I said, a depressing year