Metro Mayors – A sanctuary for frustrated Labour MPs?

Metro Mayors

This week Bury MP and former government minister Ivan Lewis declared his interest in the post of Greater Manchester Metro Mayor, a powerful position that has been established as part of the ‘Devo Manc’ deal. The election for the post will take place in 2017.

If George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse plans go as he hopes, then Metro Mayors will be part of the new governance structure landscape in all core cities, and what Lewis’ declaration reveals is that these are jobs that will be of interest not only to local government leaders, but to national politicians too – particularly Labour MPs who see a long and frustrating period of opposition ahead under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

So who else may be considering throwing their hat in the ring in Manchester? The sitting interim mayor is Police Commissioner Tony Lloyd, a former MP himself. There is little doubt that he will be in the running, whilst many from the business community will hope that the principle architect of the Manchester deal, Sir Richard Leese, will offer his services. Former Parliamentary candidate James Frith is another potential Labour nominee, though it is probably too soon for him; and what about that old acquaintance of Downtown, Terry Christian – never short of an opinion, he would certainly make an interesting Independent candidate. And if we are considering ‘A’ list celebrities, then surely Gary Neville would be a hot favourite if he decided to swap the financial rewarding world of football punditry, England coaching and property development for the blood, sweat and tears of running a city region. An unlikely scenario this one.

In Liverpool, the six leaders are said to be tantalisingly close to a deal with the chancellor, but the idea of an elected mayor has been the sticking point. More accurately, the idea of Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson being elevated to the more strategic role has been the problem for other Merseyside leaders. So, if not Joe, who are the alternatives? Refreshingly, there is a strong line up of female suitors for the role who would all make very credible mayoral nominees. The Police Commissioner for Liverpool city region, another former MP Jane Kennedy; and three existing Mersey MPs, the experienced Louise Ellman; shadow minister Luciana Berger, and Labour moderniser Alison McGovern would surely consider running. There have also been a whole host of individual’s names, from successful businessmen such as Sir Terry Leahy, through to celebrity hairdresser Herbert mentioned as a future Liverpool mayor – but the more likely outcome is that a Labour politician will have the privilege of heading up the Liverpool city region in eighteen months’ time.

Big Labour beasts will also be prominent in the Birmingham contest. MPs Gisela Stuart and Liam Byrne have little opportunity of career progression in a left wing dominated parliamentary group, and the attraction of having genuine power over a region that is bigger than some countries would whet the appetite of any serious politician. Local Enterprise Partnership chairman Andy Street has been mentioned to me more than once as a possible runner, and what about the ubiquitous Ed James, who would certainly be more likely to attract the younger voters support.

Leeds and Yorkshire is home to more victims than most as far as Labour’s recent collective nervous breakdown is concerned. Ed Balls lost his parliamentary seat even before the Corbyn bandwagon was an issue, whilst his very able partner Yvette Cooper lost out on the top party job. Could they see the Leeds metro mayor position as a way back into meaningful public office? Young talent, Leeds MP and former shadow treasury minister Rachael Reeves could be another who is considering her options, whilst on the Tory side, would such a high profile, high powered job tempt Yorkshire’s biggest political brain William Hague back into the fray?

Lancashire is still a bit off the pace as far as the devolution agenda is concerned, but as the leaders lunch with Sir Howard Bernstein hosted by Downtown Lancashire last week demonstrated, there was certainly support for the county to get its act together, form a Combined Authority and begin to punch its weight as far as business leaders in the room were concerned. Among those present LEP chairman Edwin Booth, Marketing Lancashire chief executive Ruth Connor, Enterprise Ventures boss Jonathan Diggines, Lancaster entrepreneur Trevor Hemmings and Lancashire County Council Deputy Leader David Burrow.

One thing is for sure, the creation of powerful city region leaders is about to reinvigorate interest in local government – at least among politicians who see a much more rewarding and influential future running their local regions than in sitting on the backbenchers in Westminster watching Jeremy ask Dave his six ‘people’s questions’ every week.

A bad week for chancellor Osborne

George Osborne

When the Conservatives won the General Election back in May, I predicted that the most likely successor to David Cameron was George Osborne. The Chancellor had masterminded the Tory campaign, won the argument on the economy, and come up with the big idea that is the Northern Powerhouse.

The Labour Party’s decision to the elect Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader then meant that Osborne could look forward to a good run in the top job, as the official opposition seems determined to become a protest group, rather than a credible alternative government, for the foreseeable future.

However, I also warned that as the Conservatives settled into majority government, with the prospect of a decade in office, they faced the danger of becoming careless, complacent and, a charge already often levelled against a number of ministers, arrogant.

Little did I anticipate that this would happen so quickly though; and I would never have imagined the normally sure footed Chancellor as being the first major culprit.

His unexpected announcement of the introduction of a living wage in his first budget statement back in May did have the intended consequence of wrong footing the Labour Party. But the unintended consequence was to totally alienate SME’s who are already facing the challenge of paying for auto enrolment in two years’ time.

Nonetheless, not least through his efforts on the devolution agenda, Osborne appeared to be back on track by the time of his Tory Party conference speech in Manchester last month, following which he was installed as the firm favourite by the bookies to be the next man who would be presented with the keys to number ten.

But, as Harold Wilson famously said, “a week is a long time in politics.”

And the past seven days have been an unmitigated, and wholly unnecessary disaster, for George.

By digging his heels in over a measly £4 billion saving with his plans to reform the tax credits regime, the MP for Tatton not only brought the inevitable avalanche of criticism from the left, but had to sit through excellently presented arguments against his plans from a number of his Tory colleagues, including his nemesis Boris Johnson.

Hitting hard working, low paid families, does not appear to fit in with the Prime Ministers mantra of ‘the workers party’ and so it should have come as little surprise to the government that criticism would be fierce.

What the Chancellor failed to anticipate was the killing of his tax credits plan by the Lords. Emboldened by increasing Tory backbench unrest, public sympathy for tax credits claimants and, crucially, a lack of mention of this unkindest of cut in the Conservative manifesto, the unelected chamber were happy to give ‘the other place’ a bloody nose.

This embarrassing defeat does not mean the Tories will lose the next election. A failure to deliver the planned £4 billion saving does not throw the governments financial objectives off course.

No, what this defeat means is that Osborne goes from looking like a shoo- in for the top job to a man who might yet be beaten.

In polls last week Cameron and Johnson scored healthy leads over Jeremy Corbyn in terms of who people thought would make the best Prime Minister. Interestingly the Chancellor is neck and neck with the leader of the opposition.

This is not where George wanted to be at this early stage of a new parliament. Falling out with the Lords is a bit of a nuisance, but hardly fatal. Disagreeing with a dozen or so of your own backbenchers can be dressed up as you being able to front people up and make tough choices. Losing popularity among the electorate and being seen as level pegging with the most unpopular Labour leader in modern history – now that is a problem, and one Osborne must fix quickly if he is to realise his ambition of becoming PM.

Powerhouse Progress?

Northern powerhouse

And so it was to London this week for the property conference MIPIM UK, where the Northern Powerhouse was high on the agenda.

A panel event with the chief executives of Liverpool and Manchester City Councils’ and the chairman of the Leeds Local Enterprise Partnership explored what this agenda might mean for their three city regions, and emphasised how collaboration in the future is a must if the north is to compete in the global economy.

Sir Howard Bernstein, clearly the principle authority on the subject having delivered ‘Devo Manc’, suggested we look back to the future:

“This (agenda) is not new. Manchester built the ship canal to link it to Liverpool and to connect with people who make things with people who want to trade. This is a clear and continuing pattern.” Clearly transport and connectivity are at the top of the Northern Powerhouse priority list.

Leeds LEP chair Roger Marsh quoted Abraham Lincoln in his contribution saying “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”; whilst Liverpool CEO Ged Fitzgerald was keen to emphasise collaboration: “If we try and continue to do these things in isolation, we won’t be able to compete globally. In the Northern Powerhouse once we articulate our propositions and get our investable propositions in place, we can blend the macro factors with the micro factors developers look at.”

An interesting discussion, for sure, but equally clear is the fact that Northern Powerhouse is still very much a work in progress; with one city region significantly ahead of the rest.

As for the conference itself, the shared Manchester-Liverpool stand was extremely lively; and if you want to meet a dozen or so key people in the space of a couple of hours, rather than trying to sort our appointments with them that can take weeks – I’d highly recommend that you attend next year.

Richard Leese – A one man Northern Powerhouse

Richard Leese

On Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of spending four hours in the company of the leader of Manchester City Council.

Sir Richard Leese joined fifteen Downtown members at an exclusive private dinner at the Abode Hotel to discuss devolution, business growth, MIPIM and the current political landscape, among a wide ranging debate and discussion.

It was a fascinating insight into the thoughts and ideas of a man who has now led his city for an incredible nineteen years, leading a crusade for a city region model of governance that has led to Greater Manchester being at the centre of one the governments’ flagship policies, the Northern Powerhouse.

Leese was quick to dismiss criticism of other city regions who are not as far down the road as Manchester as far as the devolution agenda is concerned, pointing out that for his city this has been a mission that began over twenty years ago. With the best will in the world, places like Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds cannot do in twelve months what he and his colleagues have taken two decades to deliver.

On a positive note for his neighbouring city located at the other end of the M62, he suggested that it was hard to imagine a Northern Powerhouse without Liverpool in it. He also believes Leeds are close to doing a ‘devo deal’.

Ultimately though, what does the Northern Powerhouse mean? In simple terms, says Leese, it is a city of ten million people, which has a wonderful diversity that boasts quality industry, entrepreneurship, culture and a tourist offer in equal measure. In practical terms, it’s about ‘the economy stupid’ with much improved infrastructure and connectivity (both in terms of digital and transport links), and an opportunity to invest in knowledge and skills that will give northerners a better life chance.

Sir Richard was also candid in his answers on a range of other topical issues. On the EU he is pro and believes the British people will vote to stay in; on Jeremy Corbyn, he has a duty as a local Labour leader to support the national Labour leader; MIPIM was in danger of turning into a p**s up in the early noughties, but has got back on track – and it may be worth considering a Northern Powerhouse stand at the property festival at some point in the future; and George Osborne is an astute politician who is genuine in his drive to re-balance the UK economy, though his austerity programme is unfair and wrong.

On a more personal note he was asked if he found his job enjoyable: “more satisfying than enjoyable” he said, whilst admitting that he had failed miserably as far as ‘work-life’ balance was concerned. And, if he could wake up in the morning and fix one thing, what would it be? “That bloody great hole on the Mancunian Way.”

A great evening with an impressive leader who is delivering for his city – and for the north.   

Tories must guard against complacency and splits


Having been pleasantly surprised at their ability to form a majority government following the General Election in May, the Conservative Party must have thought all their Christmases’ had come at once when the Labour Party, post-election, inexplicably elected a new leader who has as much chance of walking into Downing Street as Prime Minister as I have of scoring a cup winning goal for Everton.

However, from basking in the glory of their main opposition’s collective suicide mission, the Tories must guard against complacency, and returning to the deep party splits that, in significant part, led to its downfall in 1997.

Europe, the Osborne austerity agenda and politicians egos will be the challenges that will face the government in what is now likely to be a ten years stretch in power.

This week’s Tory conference was the first in what will be a series of beauty contests for the leading role, as David Cameron somewhat prematurely announced he would be stepping down following his second stint in number ten.

The main contenders are Boris, Teresa May and George Osborne. With what many would describe as an impressive handling of the economy; his Northern Powerhouse initiative; and the general acceptance that he ran the successful election campaign back in the spring, the chancellor is clearly seen as the favourite.

However, the one thing history does tell us about the Tories is that they don’t often do the obvious when it comes to electing leaders – and favourites are usually left shell shocked as party members look for something a little bit different.

Margaret Thatcher came from nowhere to succeed Edward Heath in the mid-seventies. Heseltine and Portillo were much more favoured than Major and Hague. Who would have thought Iain Duncan Smith could win a raffle, never mind the top job as leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition, and David Cameron was the outsider when he succeeded Michael Howard.

If I was a betting man I would still put my money on George. But don’t write off the chances of lesser known candidates in the field, and keep a particular eye on business minister and West Midlands MP Sajid Javid.