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.


It’s true! I have had lunch with both the current and former Prime Ministers since I last wrote. I was in the company of many other political journalists, but there’s nothing like seeing these top statesmen in the flesh, studying their mannerisms and demeanour, in order to form a view of where we are heading in 2013.




Whatever he may be feeling inside, David Cameron shows none of the angst and pressure that attended his predecessor Gordon Brown. He peppered his remarks with a number of quite good jokes, the most significant being one about Nick Clegg. He told us Nick would be along to offer his separate Christmas greetings, “although it won’t be very different from mine.” It was an obvious reference to the separate statement Clegg had made on the Leveson Report.

However much discontent there is among grass roots Tories and Lib Dems with their leaders, the Posh Boys retain that easy personal relationship that was displayed in the rose garden on the day the Coalition was formed in 2010.


Talk of the Coalition breaking up next year is foolish. This lot are in it for the long haul as Cameron told us at the lunch. The Autumn Statement showed the government’s determination to move away from current spending (servicing debt and benefits) to capital spending on infrastructure. He claimed that previous Tory governments had not tackled school and police reform. This was being done now said the PM. A Comprehensive Spending Review was being undertaken as was a document outlining Coalition priorities for the second half of the parliament. Whether it will amount to much, we will have to see but the aim is to project forward momentum. That is vital. There is little going on in parliament following the hole created by the absence of the Lords Reform Bill. This creates a danger that the government could be depicted like a boxer hanging over the ropes being pummelled by the economic crisis if Cameron and Clegg don’t keep things moving.


Cameron observed that planning for the second half of the parliament had been made easier by the passing of legislation to ensure the government had a full five years in power. In the past speculation would already be rife about a possible snap election next year.


When that election comes we may not have the Prime Ministerial debates. Cameron told us he felt they sucked the life out of the campaign in 2010. Perhaps he fears the possibility of UKIP leader Nigel Farage forcing his way into the debate on the back of a strong performance in next year’s Euro elections.


Cameron was disappointing when asked about the North South Divide. He waffled about people understanding tough decisions had to be taken. This is a government with a London perspective which makes it difficult for our Tory MPs in the North West like Graham Evans. The Weaver Vale MP was my guest at the lunch. He’s a moderate Conservative and was broadly happy with what Cameron said. However he reflected the widespread grass roots unease about gay marriage. Many of his supporters feared that safeguards for religious communities would be overruled by the European Court of Human Rights.




The centrist convictions that delivered Labour three victories were still on display when Tony Blair spoke to us just before Christmas. The “third way” and “centre ground” peppered his remarks.


He left office just before the roof fell in on the world economy. So what did he feel about planned measures to prevent the casino banking that operated during his years in office? He warned against going too far. What about companies paying their proper tax in the UK? He acknowledged the mood had changed but we were none the wiser what he felt about it. Perhaps he’s “intensely relaxed” about it.


Liverpool Council reckon they will have lost £284 million a year since 2010 and are to hold a large cities crisis summit shortly. Mr Blair was asked about this and gave what I thought was a callous answer. He claimed the public services needed more reform, not less. The financial crisis had exposed the need for change. The former Prime Minister advised councils to be innovative.


I always felt Tony Blair was out of touch with Labour’s working class on the issue of immigration. He was responsible for policies which eventually saw a major influx of people from Eastern Europe into Britain. Any regrets that he had not made it clear to people that this would be the consequence of an increase in member countries of the European Union? Immigration was good for Britain said Mr Blair. The Polish community had brought fresh energy to our economy.

This may all be true, and I agreed with his comment that in relation to European policy we must have no empty gestures or empty chairs, but on immigration there was no acknowledgement of the feelings of ordinary people (not bigots) when their communities are transformed and jobs threatened.


Lisa Nandy was my guest. The Wigan MP is already on Labour’s front bench despite her radical views on many issues. She agreed with Blair that the party has to be pragmatic in delivering public services better. But that was not enough. She told me “the world has changed since 1997. People are crying out for a principled stand on the issues of fairness and equality.” She thinks Ed Miliband, who broke from Blair’s New Labour, will provide it.




As the political class are too cowardly to mark the event properly, can I be the one person in the country to raise a glass to our 40 years membership of the European Union.


After Empire, the EU has provided us with a new role in the world as a leading member of a group of nations we helped to liberate in 1945. Let us hope in the next 40 years we will provide that leadership and stop looking at the exit door.


The Tory conference hall in Birmingham was a place to go for a snooze (except when The Blonde Mop was speaking). But on the fringe there was plenty going on affecting every business in the North West.


Despite the BAE/EADS merger collapsing and the West Coast rail franchise descending into back biting and law suits, there was still a determination for the region to defy the recession with infrastructure projects.


There were lively fringe meetings put on by Atlantic Gateway, United Utilities and BAE, all stressing that they wanted to help the government grow its way out of the recession. Liverpool 2 Port Terminal had a prime location for its stand and there was news that HS2 is to be speeded up with plans for its route into the North West being published in the next few months.




The BAE/EADS merger drama was unfolding as the Tory conference was getting under way. The Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond were in Birmingham rather than in their normal power centres in Whitehall. On Monday night BAE hosted a long arranged fringe meeting and had to listen to Tory MPs and MEPs claiming BAE were about to be crushed between French and German interests if the merger went ahead. The BAE representative told us the proposed merger was “an opportunity not a necessity”.


By Tuesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s representative had called David Cameron in his hotel suite in Birmingham to indicate her wholesale objection to the deal.


This left North West Tories from Lancashire and Cumbria at the conference worried about the future of BAE. There was widespread criticism of the company’s senior managers who had been on the back foot since a leak had forced them to reveal a half-cooked agreement. Once the plans had been revealed BAE should have gone on the offensive selling the merits of a defence-civilian plane business link up. Instead they spent weeks on the defensive as criticism of the merger mounted.


Now the workforce at Warton,Salmesbury and Barrow are worried about the future for BAE in a world where defence orders are shrinking. Unions have attacked what they claim is a lack of a defence strategy by the British government.




If defence jobs are under threat in the northern part of our region, perhaps we need to look south to the arc of development potential stretching from Manchester Airport along the banks of the Mersey to Liverpool.


Atlantic Gateway held a fringe meeting in Birmingham to get over the message that 250,000 new jobs could be created from £14 bn of investment in everything from the Northern rail hub, Daresbury Science Park, the new Mersey bridge and the Liverpool/Wirral Waters project. Added to this the area has three enterprise zones and the Liverpool 2 Port Terminal which aims to attract freight that currently comes through Southampton and Felixstowe with ultimate destinations in the North.


Dennis Bate of Bovis LendLease said the Atlantic Gateway was just the sort of big scale project that wealth funds were looking to invest in. He told representatives that the era of looking to government for big money was over.


The meeting was going well until the new leader of Cheshire East Council Michael Jones cast doubt on Manchester and Liverpool’s commitment to Atlantic Gateway. It is true that in the past Manchester Council’s Chief Executive Sir Howard Bernstein has been less than enthusiastic about the concept but everyone agreed that unity was essential in backing big scale investment to counter the over heated London economy. How else can we compete with the capital which has at its head a man who dominated the conference?




That is apparently what David Cameron called Boris Johnson just before the latter he descended like a whirlwind on the conference.


Just as I wasn’t carried away by the media euphoria that surrounded Ed Miliband last week, nor was I impressed with the Prime Ministerial credentials of Boris. I rarely queue to get into meetings these days, but I did for Boris because he is interesting and entertaining. But is he really equipped for the hard grind of decision making that the office of Prime Minister requires? David Cameron’s speech had few jokes but he’s taking the tough decisions.


The truth is Boris beat a tired Ken Livingstone in the Mayoral election. He was a great cheerleader for the Olympics but, as he himself acknowledged, the success was down to excellent teams in the Olympic organising bodies.

A BBC poll of conference delegates yielded quite a close result when they were asked who their next leader should be. 60% said Boris 40% backed anyone else. The latter is quite a high figure and suggests that the Conservative Party is not wholly caught up in the Boris mania.