George Osborne was in New York this week apparently. However, his ghost haunted the UK Northern Powerhouse (NP) conference with some suggesting that without him as Chancellor the NP project was doomed.

Well the formidable Lord Kerslake had the answer to that as he challenged business and local politicians to step forward to head up the project. The problem is that there is nothing tangible to head up. Transport for The North is the only statutory body covering the North of England. Progress on skills, growth, culture and productivity all depend on business and councils getting together on an ad hoc basis. We need a Council of the North to decide priorities and focus media attention. The NP also needs to get some achievements under its belt. Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester Council, rejected a suggestion of a big public relations drive to get people talking about the NP. By your deeds will ye know them, is a good maxim.

That said the conference has become the annual event where you have a real sense of the northern family getting together with business getting done in the exhibition hall. Although women were scarce on the speaker panels, two stood out. Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds, insisted that if we are to improve the skills base improvement needs to start in the primary school. The government have only given devolved powers after 16 so far. She also said that NP sometimes had too great an emphasis on transport. Housing and health mattered too.

Fiesty Kate Willard from Stobart also had skills in her sights, calling for the abolition of the Skills Funding Agency. She should be the next chair of the Liverpool Local Enterprise Partnership.

The conference saw the last appearance of Sir Howard Bernstein as Chief Executive of Manchester Council although when I used the word “farewell” to him, he assured me he would still be around. Watch this space. His political colleague all these years Sir Richard Leese was encouraged by the publication of the Northern Economic Review as a sign of NP progress but claimed work on the northern hub and trans Pennine rail links “were stuck”.

There were expressions of frustration throughout the two days at the long timescales for infrastructure projects. It is likely to be 2025 before new trans Pennine links will be fully operational. In the meantime however we won’t have to put up with the pacers, Arriva had good news on new rolling stock.

A number of people I spoke to expressed anxiety that NP was still too Manchester focused. Furness Enterprises told me that Barrow’s submarine contracts would be adding more GVA to the north’s economy than some cities. One Leeds businessman has begun a campaign to take a whole new look at the trans Pennine bottleneck. Lance Christie wants the M65 extended from Colne to East Leeds improving links to Leeds Bradford airport and opening a new gateway to the North West from the North East.

The effects of Brexit on the NP was on everyone’s minds with Ged Fitzgerald, the Chief Executive of Liverpool reflecting the current uncertainty. He said the vote was already having an adverse impact on the city’s universities. On the other hand, the port was now facing the right way for global trade as it had in the days of empire before the EU interlude.

Andrew Percy, the new NP Minister, convinced the conference that Theresa May was behind the Northern Powerhouse and claimed the concept was being recognised from Canada to China.

Spades in the ground might to be some way off, but as delegates left at least they could see the Ordsall Curve bridge which had been put in place while the conference was on to link Victoria and Piccadilly stations.

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So the Conservatives arrive in Birmingham this weekend in a clear blue political sky. Their enemies are divided, they have a brand new leader and the UK is leaving the hated EU.

But look a little closer and things aren’t quite so simple. George Osborne, the former Chancellor, is on manoeuvres. He was not only sacked by Mrs May but she then made it clear that his pet project, the Northern Powerhouse, was sooo yesterday. Lord O’Neill of Gatley who was Osborne’s right hand man on the project has quit. From now on we have to talk about an “industrial strategy” which is far less Manchester focused. Osborne immediately set up his Northern Powerhouse think tank. This has as much to do with his power battle with the Prime Minister as it has to do with his ongoing commitment to the regeneration of the North. Proof of this comes from Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council. Osborne was in such haste to put a shot across Mrs May’s bows, that she says Leeds knew nothing about the think tank.

Then there’s the former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan attacking the idea of more grammar schools and we are beginning to see a grouping of Osbornistas waiting to pounce if Theresa May should fail.


The Anti EU Tendency has had as decisive a victory in the Tory Party as Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have had in Labour. Over the years they have pressurised and outmanoeuvred the pro Europeans. They have brought down at least two Prime Ministers, engineered our Brexit and still they are not satisfied as you will find out in Birmingham. The conference fringe will ring to the repetition of the vacuous phrase “Brexit Means Brexit”. Now we have another one “Leave Means Leave”. The Anti EU ultras are just waiting for Mrs May to betray them on the terms of Brexit.

They won’t be satisfied until the tariff barriers are up, our universities are stripped of EU researchers and Nissan and General Motors are relocating in Europe.


After my dispiriting visit to the Lib Dems in Brighton looking for centre left solidarity, I headed off to Labour’s gathering in Liverpool and came away with the view that Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents are pretty clueless.

I am of the view that there is a huge opportunity for centre left politicians to emerge from their bunkers and unite to put up a common front to the Tories. When I asked former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg about this , he went on about Labour’s bad behaviour in the electoral reform vote in 2011.

In Liverpool I decided to tackle Chuka Umunna. He’s the Labour MP who should have stood against Jeremy Corbyn but has funked it twice. At a fringe meeting he was regretting the referendum result, so I asked for his opinion on Lib Dem leader Tim Farron’s call for the Brexit package to be put to the British people. Umunna dismissed the idea as an attempt by Farron to get some attention for his party.

With some outrageous rigging of conference procedures the anti Corbyn forces are clinging on to control of the party’s National Executive, but they shouldn’t rely too heavily on Jeremy Corbyn’s promise not to introduce mandatory reselection for MPs. The left don’t need it, the boundary changes will provide the ideal opportunity to pounce.

At a fringe meeting I attended a platform speaker could not have been more clear when he dismissed the idea that Labour MPs should be elected in their twenties and stay until they decided to retire.

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn may be able to mobilise the dispossessed to vote in huge numbers to take him to power. A more likely outcome will be that the vision of high spending and no immigration controls that was approved in Liverpool this week will not appeal in Wirral, Morley and Nuneaton where Labour needs to win.