Hancock’s Half Page

STARMER: POWER OR THE PICKET LINE?

LABOUR’S DILEMMA.

Sir Keir Starmer could have chosen to come to Lime Street station on Wednesday and join the RMT picket line, instead he came to Liverpool on Monday to speak to business people about growth. At Downtown events throughout the day, he told us his party would not neglect the public services, but the economy would be central at the next election. He wanted the right relationship with business and would set up an Industrial Strategy Council. (Very old readers may remember Neddy! The National Economic Development Council of the sixties).

The growth strategy apparently involves ditching promises he made to nationalise rail, energy, and water when he stood for the leadership two years ago. Well, there’s a novelty! Aspirants to lead their party making promises to activists that will have to be modified when facing the electorate as a whole. I think you’ll find Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss engaged in that very exercise at the moment.

The fact is if Labour opportunistically backed every wage demand being made at the moment, they would be vulnerable to Tory attacks and their economic credibility would be shattered. Labour has to fight desperately hard to be trusted with the economy. Few doubt their passion for the NHS, but they regularly lose out to the Conservatives who are perceived to be sounder on running the country’s finances.

However, inflation, energy and food price rises make a compelling case for wage increases. With Brexit caused labour shortages thrown into the mix, Starmer has to support legitimate claims whilst not giving full backing to strikes which inflict misery on potential voters trying to get to work. It is a tricky balancing act.

He may be given a chance to appease the left in his party if Liz Truss becomes Prime Minister and tries to crack down further on public sector strikes. Starmer might have the support of the public if they feel the Tories are going too far.

THE LIVERPOOL VISIT.

Once again Downtown in Business was at the centre of the political action. Our members were out in numbers to hear Sir Keir’s major speech on the economy that led the bulletins on Monday morning.

Then he was off to Anfield to pay respects at the Hillsborough Memorial and on a happier note visit the venue where Arsenal’s Michael Thomas goal stole the league from the Reds in 1989. Starmer is a passionate Arsenal fan.

At an evening reception in the Ropeworks area of the city, he told us that his Shadow Chancellor who “knows nothing about football” had been to Goodison to learn about the regeneration plans involving Everton’s planned move to Bramley Moore Dock.

At the Ropeworks reception he was accompanied by two of his most able Shadow Cabinet members, Alison McGovern, Employment (Wirral South) and Johnny Reynolds, Business (Stalybridge and Hyde).

The theme was again the economy with Reynolds making the point that, for the first time, young people were worse off than their parents.

Starmer renewed Labour’s pledge to devolve power, but the policy is not clearly developed yet. The Labour leader said devolution would be to “places.” I asked him if he meant more mayors or a revival of regional government. He wasn’t sure at this stage but said the issue was important.

So, a mixed week for Starmer who now has to wait to see who his opponent will be in 2024.

We’ll have a clearer picture when Just Jim returns in September.

RIPPING THEMSELVES APART.

POWER OR TAX IDEOLOGY?

If the spectacle of last Sunday’s bitter Tory leaders’ debate is repeated across the country in the hot humid days of August, the Tory Party will be in serious danger of losing the next election.

It is not just the sight of Cabinet “colleagues” tearing into each other but the way they disowned policies they had supported as ministers. One thing is certain, if they secretly disagreed with higher taxes, we still had to pay them!

The Sunak-Truss contest will be a test of whether the Conservative members want to give themselves a fighting chance of winning a fifth term or indulge their ideological longing for tax cuts.

The country is focused on a host of problems which the chaotic Johnson government is failing to deal with. Inflation and rocketing energy bills are hitting the standard of living. There are huge labour shortages caused by Brexit. Action on the green agenda, housing and levelling up has stalled. Yet all you heard about in the first part of this leadership election was tax.

Rishi Sunak is the only candidate to tell the truth about it. We are paying north of £80bn in national debt interest charges. He’s right, that can’t be wished away by fairy tales. I am disappointed with Liz Truss. Ever since she attended a Downtown event some years ago, I saw her as potential Prime Ministerial material. But now she is going out of her way to distance herself from voting Remain, and while houses were burning up and down the country, promised to cut the climate levy from energy bills.

There is widespread disappointment among northern Tory grassroots that a candidate, not associated with the Johnson regime, isn’t on the ballot. Some are petitioning for Johnson to be included, angered as they are that once again MPs have taken away their champion. They are no doubt encouraged at Johnson’s hints that we have not seen the last of him. The Trumpian comparisons continue. It is unlikely he’ll remain a backbench MP for long, but we are all familiar with what damage disgruntled Tory leaders can do. The long sulk of Ted Heath was followed by the back seat driving of Margaret Thatcher during John Major’s years.

Egged on by the Daily “what have they done “Mail, Johnson will be incapable of shutting up and will have a vested interest in seeing that his successor doesn’t get anywhere near his 80-seat majority. Instead, he could be secretly hoping for a short Labour government during which he could return.

It is expected that Tory Party members will return their ballots early so the candidate’s performance in the Leeds on July 28th will be important. By the time Truss and Sunak rack up in Manchester on August 19th and Birmingham on August 23rd, most votes will be returned.

NEVER MIND TAX CUTS…WHAT ABOUT REFORM?

TAX CUT OBSESSION

The Tory leadership race is being dominated by who can promise the quickest and most drastic tax cuts. The former Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is taking the most responsible approach. He’s seen the books and knows the constant demand for more spending on our crumbling public services.

We can argue about the merits of cutting tax. The argument is that more money in people’s pockets will generate growth, boost the economy, allowing us to have the public services we all need.

But money isn’t the real answer for a Britain where the outgoing Prime Minister leaves behind a country where you can’t get an ambulance, passport, or a GP appointment. The National Health Service is the best example of this. It is rightly a national treasure and because of that, politicians are frightened of saying it needs root and branch reform. Health, social care, and GPs need to be integrated so they all work together, not in isolated silos. The passport office needs to be properly managed. Can you imagine Sainsbury’s running out of key products? The government need to have a clear policy of getting people back in the workplace. Working from home and flexi hours are making it impossible for the public to contact the right people. And what about net zero? Has the climate emergency gone away?

Are you hearing any discussion of these matters amongst the Tory leadership candidates? Most of them are obsessed with tax cuts and it is just a question of how fast and how much.

They presumably think this will be a winner in 2024. I think the voters will be demanding a government with different priorities and it is time for Labour to start being clearer and bolder with its vision.

Meanwhile it looks as if Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt will be the ones to face the Tory membership who seem to be thirsting for a big break from the Johnson regime.

It must go to the party members. In a typical act of mischief, the Prime Minister suggested that it might be stitched up in parliament with one of the last two candidates withdrawing as happened in 2016. Prime Ministers who are chosen without the endorsement of party members don’t always fare well. Ask Gordon Brown and Theresa May.

THE PEOPLE’S THEATRE.

Congratulations to Knowsley Council and everyone associated with Shakespeare North. The new Globe style theatre just opening in Prescot looks magnificent. It was a courageous visionary idea to choose one of the most deprived boroughs in the country to be home to the Bard in the north, trading on sixteenth century connections between Shakespeare and the first Elizabethan indoor theatre outside London, in Prescot.

Max Steinberg, who has played such a big part in regeneration projects on Merseyside for so many years, is chair of the Shakespeare North Trust. He spoke at a Downtown event recently and said he was most proud of the way the local community has already adopted the Shakespeare North Playhouse as their own.

Already there is evidence of the project giving the local economy a much-needed boost with cafes and restaurants springing up nearby.

“All things are ready, if our minds be so” Henry V.

GONE…THE WORST PM IN HISTORY

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way to start with. Boris Johnson’s quick action in vaccinating the country against Covid saved thousands of lives. His robust support for Ukraine has been first class. Apart from that his political career has been a disgrace. Some want to give him credit for being a rare politician who actually delivered on a promise, to get Brexit done. I do not include that for two reasons. Firstly, his opportunistic support for Leave tilted the balance into us making one of the worst decisions this country has ever made. Secondly it isn’t done and never can be. We can’t be completely free from our near neighbours, particularly the Irish Republic.

I was in the Press Gallery of the House of Commons on Wednesday for the last Johnson Prime Minister’s Questions before he announced he was resigning. His delusional bluster reminded me of Donald Trump’s behaviour following his defeat in America in 2020. For a moment on Wednesday night, it looked as if this pompous man was going to embarrass the Queen by a refusal to go. The two men have much in common. One, at least, won’t be coming back.

Johnson was unable to rouse the stony-faced Tory backbenchers as he tried to get off the issue of Pinchergate. It allowed Sir Keir Starmer (more on his fate later) to have one of his finest hours. After he had graphically outlined the nature of the assault on one of Chris Pincher’s victims, he tore into the hapless PM. However his main target were the ministers and MPs who’d supported Johnson till the end. They were “sinking ships fleeing the rat.” Those replacing them were “the charge of the lightweight brigade, a Z list cast of nodding dogs.”

Normally such attacks would have had Tory backbenchers in uproar. Instead, I witnessed silence.

After a night of farce when Johnson fired Michael Gove and the Education Secretary for a day, Michelle Donelan resigned, Johnson finally realised the game was up and we are left to contemplate his disgraceful career.

It began when he used to file reports for the Daily Telegraph from Brussels which were a pack of lies designed to mock and discredit the European Commission.

My first encounter with him was in 2004 when he was sent to Liverpool by, then Tory leader Michael Howard to apologise for saying the city was “hooked on grief” over Hillsborough.

He squandered a rare Tory victory in Labour dominated London when he was Mayor. His terms in office were dominated by photo opportunities rather than solid improvements.

Then we come to the infamous moment in February 2016 when he had the case for Remain and Leave on his desk. For career reasons he chose Leave and the rest is history.

As Foreign Secretary he began the damage to our international reputation and having hounded Theresa May from office, his premiership has seen a debasement of the office of Prime Minister in a series of lies and scandals