George Osborne may well have done enough to ensure the Conservatives are the largest party after next May’s General Election.


The underlying perception that the government has stabilised the economy has been around for a while and probably would have been enough to secure electoral success. This week’s blatantly electioneering autumn statement and accompanying announcements on roads, flood relief schemes and the scrapping of the trans Pennine pacer trains should prove the icing on the cake.


The fact that the election will be followed by a further massive attack on council spending, a probable failure to eliminate the deficit at any time in the next parliament and the real possibility of tax rises…well we’ll deal with that later.




Labour must be worried by the way that George Osborne has positioned himself as champion of the Northern Powerhouse but before we look at those measures, there is an important question. What happened to Nick Clegg’s promise that Leeds and Sheffield were to get their devolution packages before the Autumn Statement? Perhaps that was why the Lib Dem leader absented himself from the Commons. The word is that Clegg’s insistence that the package should not involve a directly elected mayor has not gone down well with the Treasury.


It is striking what benefits Greater Manchester is reaping from its coherent political leadership. On top of last month’s devolution package it is to get the Sir Henry Royce Materials Research Centre and a new theatre space at the old Granada TV site. It is to be called The Factory Theatre, a fitting tribute to Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records, who did so much to champion the cause of Northern devolution.


But the rest of the north hasn’t been forgotten. Improved access to the Port of Liverpool, flood defence schemes at Rossall in Lancashire and the Humber Estuary and a College to train people for the oil and gas industries in Blackpool are all welcome.


A sovereign wealth fund is be set up so that northern communities can benefit from shale gas extraction and under new franchises for Northern and Trans Pennine rail services, the dreaded pacer trains are to finally be replaced.


The government is still not addressing the major devolution questions for the whole of the North, people are on low wages, food banks grow and the services people depend on may be swept away, but it is going to be difficult for Labour to match the Tories Northern Powerhouse concept.




There has been criticism that George Osborne has had two jobs, as Chancellor and Tory Party strategist. But you can see the virtue of it after Wednesday’s statement.


The Stamp Duty changes make Labour’s mansion tax proposals look clumsy and complex. It is true that their mansion tax would bring in a revenue stream every year whereas Stamp Duty is paid once. However the rich really will be clobbered by the changes whilst people buying lower priced houses are benefiting immediately from a welcome windfall.


To further tackle the perception that the Chancellor favours his rich friends, banks are facing a new tax and there will be an attempt to get multinationals to pay tax properly in the UK, although Osborne’s unilateral move is attracting criticism that it is not being coordinated internationally.


National insurance relief on apprentices, loans for post graduates, measures on Air Passenger Duty and ISAs, plus the petrol duty freeze will all contribute to a good feeling going into the election campaign.


Labour will rightly point to the big picture failure of the Chancellor to redeem his promise to balance the books in this parliament and the day of reckoning that awaits us all, but will that sway the voters?









Readers of my blog will not be surprised by Labour’s desperately close shave in Heywood and Middleton. It was just as important a result as Clacton because of its implications for Labour across the North. As in Scotland Ed Miliband is not cutting through and it’s too late to remove him. Clacton gives UKIP their first MP but Douglas Carswell was the popular incumbent.


Following these results it is increasingly difficult to predict which combination of parties will hold power after the General Election. What we can be certain of is that they will face a deficit north of £75bn.


Assurances were given in Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow that balancing the books was the aim. However the pressures of the forthcoming election have led to the usual sweeteners for the voters and some small measures to increase taxes. Nobody dares tell us what governing after 2015 will really be like.


Labour is still just in the lead in the opinion polls and yet had the most downbeat conference. The Conservatives convinced themselves Ed Miliband was not going to make it to No 10 and staged a premature celebration. There weren’t a lot of Lib Dems in Glasgow. I know that because a steward ordered me off the balcony seats to make the stalls look more crowded! Those that did turn up appear to have concluded that things couldn’t get any worse and the only way was up.


If the General Election was not just months away, Nick Clegg would surely have been held to account for the complete decimation of his councillor base in the North along with the party’s MEPs this summer. Many victims of the Town Hall massacre hadn’t the stomach to come to Glasgow but Chris Davies, the defeated North West Lib Dem MEP, was there and plans to head up the North West Party Association soon.


Only Lib Dem MPs have so far been spared the wrath of the voters. They were elected on the very day that the party began to negotiate with the Tories, a toxic deal for many of their followers. Next May they could lose so many seats that their credibility as a coalition partner could be called into question. There was talk in Glasgow of Labour winning most seats, the Conservatives most votes, UKIP coming third but the Lib Dems still being in government with Labour. Would people feel that was legitimate?


Nick Clegg will probably take his 2010 stance that he will work with whoever gets the largest number of seats but his activists were pressed to come off the fence at a key fringe meeting. Neil Lawson is in charge of a think tank called Compass. He is Labour but not tribally so. He challenged the Lib Dems to come off the fence and acknowledge their “progressive” nature. Lawson’s key point, which I think has merit, was that faith in the old party structure is breaking down to such an extent that Labour, the Lib Dems,Greens and progressive nationalists are all going to need to get together after future indecisive election results.


Nick Clegg pleaded with voters to forgive the Lib Dems for the one promise they had broken (tuition fee rises) and credit them for raising the tax threshold for 25 million people, the pupil premium and keeping right wing Tories in check.


Clegg reminded his party that it had split asunder under the strain of coalition in the 1920s and that had not happened this time.


It remains to be seen if this was the last time the Lib Dems will hold a party conference while in power for another ninety years.









Did you see Salmond and Darling shouting over each other in the recent debate on Scottish independence? Things are hotting up north of the border! The police are being called in to maintain order at meetings and to ensure there is no intimidation at the polling stations in a fortnight’s time.


So back to that debate where the moderator failed to control the Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond and the leader of Better Together Alistair Darling. But it was lively and so was the audience.


Will we have a similar debate for the whole of the UK next year at the General Election? It shouldn’t really be necessary to ask that question considering the success of the first party leader debates ever in 2010. Twenty million people watched the three debates including the young and those who usually consider political programmes a waste of time. The first debate produced the historic initial surge in support for Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

They were a valuable new feature of our general election campaign and their future should be secure, but it isn’t.


This autumn broadcasters and politicians will be locked in prolonged negotiations with no certainty that we will get debates next year. There are a number of questions.




For decades the debates never happened largely because whoever was in power felt they had everything to lose by allowing their opponents the even playing field of a studio debate. They only happened in 2010 because Sky threatened to go ahead with an empty chair if Gordon Brown, David Cameron or Nick Clegg failed to turn up.


The Conservatives have been prevaricating for months. Heaven knows why. Ed Miliband’s “oddness” should work in the Tories favour in this image obsessed world. By now we ought to know for certain that the debates are to take place with all the details in place. The closer we get to May 7th with the political temperature rising, the more difficult will become the negotiations. There were 76 clauses covering the conduct of the 2010 debates!




David Cameron has suggested that the debates dominated the campaign to the exclusion of local activity. There is some truth in that. We were either analysing the last encounter or speculating about the next. This was all people were talking about on the doorstep. Cameron has suggested there might be only one debate or if there were more then they should be spread across January to May next year.




The biggest problem for the broadcasters is the rise of UKIP. The BBC, ITV and Sky all have guidelines about who should appear in programmes and for how long. I should know. I spent enough time hovering over a stop watch in the campaigns from 1974-2005.


The guidelines refer to due weight being given to major parties and appropriate coverage to others. None of that helps us with UKIP. They will have at least one MP by the General Election (Douglas Carswell in Clacton), they won the European Election, have a number of councillors and a respectable opinion poll rating. To deny Nigel Farage his place alongside Cameron, Miliband and Clegg would anger the British voters.


I don’t agree with anything UKIP stands for. They are edging us towards the disaster of the exit door from the EU, but they represent a distinctive point of view in this General Election and they must be heard.




In 2010 members of the public were allowed their foot in the door, but only to pose a question and then shut up. Time must be given to allow the questioner to comment on the initial answers given. That right would not be abused because the audience will have been vetted most carefully for party balance.


We need to hear PDQ that the debates are on.









Although the last months of the old parliamentary session gave the impression that MPs had run out of things to do, the Queen’s Speech had plenty of content, particularly to help small businesses in the North. Not that parliament’s success should always be measured by the amount of legislation passed. The old maxim “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change,” is a good one. MPs should debate the bills they do pass more thoroughly with at least two or three days for a second reading.

After the Lib Dem’s poor showing in the recent elections, there was a danger that David Cameron would be left riding into his last legislative term before the General Election with Nick Clegg strapped, half dead, over the back of his horse. Instead the Posh Boys have signalled that they are in it together till the end.

Lib Dem influence remains alive both in measures included, like infant free school meals, and bills left out, such as entrenching the E.U referendum in law.

The key elements in this Queen’s Speech are pension reform and help for business. It is a bold aim of the Prime Minister to make Britain the most business friendly country in the world but the list of support measures is long. Penalties on employers who undercut the minimum wage should help honest business people. Measures to reduce delays in employment tribunals, to tackle red tape (again) and simplify the collection of National Insurance from the self employed will all be welcomed.

The government pledge to help SMEs with access to finance will be met with some scepticism. A survey out this week found that a third of companies planning growth in the North West feared the banks would turn them down.

The pension changes will potentially affect people’s lives into the second half of the century. Giving people new rights over their pension pots and the proposed defined collective contribution schemes(DCCs) are not without their problems. There is a danger we will create a new class of feckless retirees who blow their pension pots and have to rely on meagre state pensions in their last days. In relation to the DCCs proposal, will there be enough employers prepared to band together to create pension funds with the clout to get better returns than the current annuity system? These funds will have to be managed by the financial whizz kids who were responsible for the mis-selling of financial products in the past.

Other measures in this surprisingly meaty Queen’s Speech included a continuing freeze on petrol duty and plans to elect the boards of our National Parks. A whiff of democracy in the Lake District and High Peak is no bad thing.

More controversial is the measure to make fracking easier. Battle will be joined from Blackpool to Salford and beyond.


I had the privilege at the weekend to go aboard the first Cunard liner to dock in Liverpool for nearly forty years. The Commodore and crew of Queen Victoria all expressed their delight at returning to their spiritual home virtually underneath the Cunard Building on the Pier Head.

Mayor Joe Anderson, who has done much to get the cruise business back to Liverpool, announced that a restaurant in the Cunard Building is to be named Aquitania. It’s in honour of the longest serving express liner in the company’s history. The Aquitania made its maiden voyage from the port a hundred years ago.

Many people at the event were looking forward as well as back. Max Steinberg, the captain of the International Festival of Business told me it is hard to keep up with the number of events that are being added daily to the global networking event about to get under way in the city.