I met Gordon Brown this week for the first time since he was Prime Minister. He is in many ways Britain’s Richard Nixon. Both clever men with a passion for what politics can achieve. Each had a towering achievement. Nixon’s was the breakthrough between the United States and Red China. Brown’s was keeping our cash machines open in October 2008 and leading the world as it reeled from the collapse of Lehman Brothers. But both men’s periods in office ended disastrously partly because they saw enemies around every corner, enemies that had to be crushed.

For the last four years Brown has largely disappeared from front line politics. He has a role with the United Nations but is rarely seen at Westminster. Indeed in a speech this week to Commons correspondents he made a joke of it. He spoke of needing a tour guide and taking the new members induction course. Dangerous stuff, many think he should have left the Commons on ceasing to be Prime Minister as Tony Blair did.

But as one reporter observed, little has changed since Brown’s time in No 10. We still have senior Cabinet Ministers at each others throats and special advisers resigning.

Brown was anxious to point out that he wasn’t seeking to return to the limelight except to be “a foot soldier” in the campaign against Scottish independence.

There has been speculation as to why Brown has, so far, kept a low profile in the debate. Perhaps it was because the Better Together campaign is headed by Alistair Darling who faced the “forces of Hell” when as Brown’s Chancellor he accurately forecast the coming economic meltdown in the summer of 2008.

We will see whether Brown the foot soldier can keep from standing on people’s toes in the coming weeks. His suggestion that the Prime Minister should debate with Alex Salmond has not gone down well. The role of the Conservative Party in the “No” campaign is really tricky. Better Together fear that as the prospect of the Tories being the largest party after the 2015 General Election rises, so does support for independence. So David Cameron has the dilemma of wanting to put his Prime Ministerial authority behind keeping the UK united without helping Salmond to claim that Scotland keeps getting governments it doesn’t vote for.

Brown is clearly unimpressed with the Better Together campaign’s tactics so far. He says they need to avoid it becoming a British politicians v Scotland issue. Scottish identity is not at issue, nor is the existence of the Scottish Parliament with more devolution on the way. All that has been granted. What this is about is severing all links with the UK.

Despite the latest polls showing 58% support for “No” against 42% Yes, Brown fears that if we don’t wake up, Scottish independence could still happen.

Gordon Brown was always more sympathetic to Northern devolution than Tony Blair. That enthusiasm has not diminished. He warned this week that there could be more constitutional turmoil, even if Scotland rejects independence, unless English regions are given more power. He regretted that the Coalition had not taken the opportunity to address these issues as well as Scottish independence.

I wonder why that choice was made by David Cameron. It was because the Scots, and the Welsh, get their act together and demand devolution.

That’s what we need to do starting at Downtown’s Northern Revolution conference next month.





We’d better get used to it. A continuing economic squeeze administered by a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The only difference after the General Election will be that the Tories will hold most of their cards with the Lib Dems reduced to about 30 MPs.


The Chancellor was in confident mood on Wednesday.

He shouldn’t have been. In the rose garden days three years ago the Coalition didn’t expect to still be making cuts in 2015-16. Nevertheless George, or Geoff Osborne if you prefer, has managed to convince not only the British people but the Labour Party that there is no alternative.


Labour are in serious trouble. They have broadly signed up to the cuts strategy. Having lagged behind public opinion on the need for benefit reform, they are now lurching to the right to such an extent that we are not sure that basic pensions would be safe in their hands.


George Osborne was devastating when he used Gordon Brown’s old formula for mocking the Opposition. The Chancellor told MPs he had received representations to include pensions in the welfare cap, but had resisted them. Chris Leslie, one of Ed Balls’ Shadow Treasury sidekicks wasn’t even prepared to attack plans to make people wait seven days for benefits when the TUC were warning it could mean kids going without food.


Labour are in this position largely because of Ed Balls.

I’m afraid the Shadow Chancellor has to go. He is associated in the public mind with the Brown days and people still blame that administration, and not the current one, for the mess. It may be unfair three years into the Coalition, but it is a fact.


Alistair Darling should be the Shadow Chancellor. He is currently heading up the Better Together campaign against the Scot Nats, but he could do that part time because Scotland isn’t going to vote for independence.

Darling has a reassuring manner in contrast to the bruiser Balls. More importantly he was honest about the economic troubles ahead which nearly led to his sacking by Brown.


Even with Darling as Shadow Chancellor it is going to be difficult for Labour to become the largest party in 2015. Economic green shoots are appearing and house prices are rising. Public support for benefit reform and a smaller public sector has grown during the austerity years. This doesn’t mean that millions of people aren’t suffering but the majority back the Coalition and Labour is not going to be a socialist champion.


The Coalition shows no sign of breaking up as the election approaches. These cuts are for 2015. The Lib Dems could have made far more trouble about being committed to them for the year after the election. They didn’t and Chief Secretary Danny Alexander (a Lib Dem) received fulsome praise from George Osborne.


Osborne and Alexander have pulled off another trick. Amid all the cuts there is real commitment to northern infrastructure projects like rail spending in Leeds, fast track permits to frack for gas in Lancashire and the new Mersey crossing.


The biggest black mark for the Chancellor is the woeful failure to properly fund the Single Local Growth Fund. Lord Heseltine had urged Local Enterprise Partnerships to be allowed to bid for £49bn from the fund. It was given just £2bn a year.


For that you shall be called Geoffrey, Mr Chancellor!