A roller coaster takes you up as well as down. Critics of George Osborne’s budget have focused on the steep level of public spending cuts until 2018 followed by a positive spending forecast for 2019. To me it seems the Chancellor has plotted a route for the Tories to be in government until 2025.

The budget will probably convince enough people that this government has done enough to turn the economy around to make the Tories the largest party on May 7th.

If the Conservatives are able to deliver their economic plan in the next parliament then by the time of the next election, they will be in a position to put the pain of cuts behind them and seek a full mandate on the back of positive public spending.

A lot can go wrong and the Chancellor is refusing to explain where the 2016-18 cuts of £12bn will fall. There is also the small matter of what damage will be done to the economy by the uncertainty over our membership of the European Union. But broadly this was a confident display by George Osborne who has put Labour on the back foot nationally and in respect of the Northern Powerhouse.

The budget had numerous references to that proposal, including the claim that Yorkshire was creating more jobs than France and that growth in the north was faster than the south. The Northern Transport Strategy will pave the way for the trans Pennine HS3 which is more relevant to the economy of the North than HS2.

The weakness in Osborne’s approach to the Northern Powerhouse is the apparent favouritism of Greater Manchester. The announcement that the councils can keep 100% of additional growth from business rates follows on from its combined authority and NHS deals. Meanwhile the West Yorkshire deal announced this week has been described by the leader of Leeds Council as “not matching our ambitions.” They are paying the price for not agreeing to an elected mayor.

The Tories have developed a strong relationship with Labour Manchester with Ed Miliband’s and Ed Balls’ vision for the North left unclear. They are right to point to the unfair share of the cuts being borne up here but there is no way they should have allowed the Conservatives to become the champions of cities where they scarcely have a councillor.

It was a budget designed to shoot as many of Labour’s foxes as possible. The expected £23bn surplus forecast in the autumn statement led to claims Osborne was taking us back to spending levels from the 1930s. The surplus has now been reduced to £7bn.

The £900m bank levy and tax evasion measures were designed to blunt Labour’s attack. To answer the charge that the Tories were shamelessly courting the grey vote, we have the cut in tax relief on pension contributions and the ISA for first time buyers.


This is Labour’s top target in the North West. The Tory MP Eric Ollerenshaw has a majority of just 333 in this seat that strangely combines two quite different communities. Fleetwood on one side of the Wyre estuary has a fishing background whilst miles away to the north Lancaster is a university city where the Greens have strength on the council.

The likely winner is Labour’s Cat Smith whose job involves supporting social work professionals.








Labour’s conference in Manchester certainly didn’t feel like 1996 when the party was last preparing to take power.


Long before Ed Miliband’s blunder in “forgetting” to deliver his remarks on the economy and immigration, it was clear this gathering was not going to be the launch pad to victory. This was because the Scottish Referendum result has cast gloom not optimism across the Labour Party.


It was a victory for “no” which Labour supported but at what a price. The campaign exposed the degree to which previously loyal members in the industrial heart of Scotland (particularly Glasgow) were prepared to express their disillusionment with a party that is no longer radical enough for them. Then there were the images of Ed Miliband being jostled in a shopping mall whilst Gordon Brown showed what effective speech making was all about. Finally the referendum campaign has left Labour floundering for an answer on the English votes for English laws question.


Two last points on the Scotland vote. The high turnout wasn’t just because the question being asked was of the highest importance. Every vote mattered and was campaigned for whether it be in Kirkwall or Kilmarnock. In General Elections we have seen a growing trend for the parties to concentrate on 150 odd marginals. In the “safe” seats there is often little campaigning so it is no wonder the turnout next May could be around 65%. The other one is votes for 16/17 year olds. Ed Miliband was quite right to commit Labour to this extension of the electorate. The Scots youngsters were great. Let’s hope the other parties commit to the same proposal at a time when the issue of the prosperous old and the debt burdened young is rearing its head and needs a political voice.





So Labour delegates arrived in Manchester with a mixture of relief that Scotland was staying and concern about the trap being laid for them by the Prime Minister over English votes for English laws.


They remain ahead in the polls but can they win a majority or will they have to contemplate a deal with what’s left of the Liberal Democrats? I attended a couple of fringe meetings on that subject. There is a lot of antipathy to any deal. A Liverpool Unite delegate said the party would stop supporting Labour if such a thing happened, but there are pragmatists too.

Ed Miliband needed to make a game changing speech but failed. Both he and Ed Balls (for different reasons) are the weakness at the head of the party. However there is potential on the front bench. Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham’s idea to bring social and health care together is good. A policy well explained at conference by a man who must have another run for leader. Women like Mary Creagh, Stella Creasey and Rachel Reeves are also future stars.


This was the last Labour conference in Manchester until at least 2019. My sources suggest the city has priced itself out of the party’s reach. Liverpool have stepped in to host the next two northern conferences.


Now it is on to Birmingham and the Conservatives. You can write the lines now “Ed Miliband may have forgotten the economy but we haven’t etc”. However economic optimism is likely to be overshadowed by how the Tories deal with UKIP who could be poised for by election victories not only in Clacton but Heywood and Middleton too.









If the economic recovery continues until May next year there is at least a possibility that the Conservatives will be the largest party after the General Election.


Since 1979 voters have rewarded governments with at least three terms in office and although the Tories didn’t win outright in 2010 they will get most of the credit for turning the economy around. Labour is still vulnerable to being characterised as the party that got us into the mess. It’s a rough old world but reference to the worldwide recession by the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls won’t wash with many voters.


But it is only largest party status that the Conservatives can realistically hope for. The failure to reform constituency boundaries will cost them 20 odd seats. They will also lose votes to UKIP if their recent lacklustre campaign in Wythenshawe is anything to go by. The Tory candidate there was a hapless vicar who party managers allowed to be filmed on TV wandering around on his own having his leaflets refused by shoppers. They tried to pass off criticism by saying that a constituency which historically had one of the largest council estates in Europe was not their territory. That wasn’t Harold Macmillan’s view when he built hundreds of thousands of houses in the fifties or Margaret Thatcher when she introduced the right to buy.


The Tories are never going to win seats like Wythenshawe and South Shields but they should try and beat UKIP into second place. In six northern by elections in this parliament they have trailed in behind Nigel Farage. Across the north UKIP may become the default vote for blue collar workers who aren’t Labour.


All that said I still think the Tories could be the largest party in May 2015, so what happens then?


There has been speculation that David Cameron is set to promise to rule out a further coalition with the Lib Dems in advance of the poll. The advantages of this would be to focus people’s minds on a straight choice between Tories and Labour and it would avoid an embarrassing row with right wing Conservative backbenchers who are determined to reject a further deal with Nick Clegg. I think it is very likely that if Cameron tried to continue the current arrangement, he’d be removed.


The idea of a Conservative minority government has been dismissed on the grounds that it would be unstable and wouldn’t last. That presupposes that the defeated Labour and Liberal Democrat parties would be eager to force a second election. This is nonsense. In a second election the voters would likely repeat their message that they preferred the Tories and might even give them an overall majority to punish the parties that hadn’t got the message. The evidence of recent “replay” elections bears this out. Labour won narrowly in 1964 and handsomely in 1966. They were short of a majority exactly 40 years ago in March 1974 and won a slim lead the following October.


There is no reason why a Conservative minority government couldn’t rule for a parliament provided it steered a moderate course. It could even reasonably renegotiate our terms of membership with the European Union and seek to put it to a referendum. Would Labour and the Liberal Democrats oppose this with the 2020 General Election already coming into view?






The year ends with the Chancellor smirking and Ed Balls going red in the face.


The Tory baiting of Ed Balls during the Autumn Statement debate brought parliament to a new low, but Balls had wound them up for years with his flat lining gestures. They are now redundant. 2013 saw the debate move from double and triple dip recessions to modest optimism about growth. It would be handy if the recovery could be based on manufacturing and exports rather than consumer and housing spending in 2014, but at the moment George Osborne is winning the plaudits. Labour ends the year relying heavily on their argument that the cost of living is the real issue.


This Christmas the Conservatives find themselves in a strange position. They lag behind Labour in the polls but in normal circumstances, they would expect to be able to surge past the opposition with the usual pre election sweeteners in the last full year of the parliament. However uncertainty over UKIP and how they will perform against Lib Dems has led to a pessimistic spirit this festive season.


When the tuition fees issue was at its height, there were forecasts that the Lib Dems would be sending their MPs elected in 2015 to Westminster in a taxi again. This year they showed signs that the darkest years that saw them virtually cleared out of Town Halls in the north may be over. They held the Eastleigh by election and leader Nick Clegg got support for policies at his party conference that would have seen grass roots revolts under previous Lib Dem leaders.


Ed Miliband is never likely to gain the adulation that Tony Blair enjoyed before he took office in 1997 but this year he has strengthened his position as party leader. By focusing on the cost of living he struck a rapport with voters and forced Ministers to take notice. There are many questions around his promise of an energy price freeze but it has made the political weather this autumn.


Miliband also won plaudits for his stance on military intervention in Syria. It led directly to the Americans having second thoughts. Whilst the war drags on and the poor refugees suffer, we are in a better place in the Middle East overall. Chemical weapons have been removed in Syria and the Iranians are coming in from the diplomatic cold.


In local politics we saw the Conservative regime of Geoff Driver defeated in Lancashire whilst two leading females departed in less than happy circumstances. Marie Rimmer lost her battle for the leadership of St Helens Council whilst Salford Chief Executive Barbara Spicer fell out with the Mayor of Salford. Happily Barbara has a new job heading up the Skills Funding Agency. Personnel changes are the least of the problems for Town Halls set against the continuing rounds of spending cuts.



The possibility of an energy gap has become more real this year as we wrestle with the problem of keeping prices down whilst dealing with global warming. The weather was rarely out of the headlines in 2013. A bitter winter was followed by a great summer. The Philippines typhoon was followed by a major battering for the coasts of the North West and Yorkshire. Fracking and nuclear power have risen up the agenda this year.


We are likely to be better connected after decisions taken in 2013. Final plans for the new Mersey Gateway Bridge were approved; the northern Rail Hub in Manchester got the green light; and consultations began on HS2.


The year saw the death of two of the twentieth century’s great figures; Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher. Their politics were very different but they both made a difference and that’s all we can hope to do each in our own way.


Have a peaceful Christmas