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Archives for May 2010

North's ex-Labour MP inspires Cameron's car clampdown

Richard Moss | 12:17 UK time, Sunday, 30 May 2010

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John Prescott gets out of a ministerial carYou'd think the political influence of most Labour MPs was now non-existent on the new Government's policies.

Especially MPs who stood down at the election.

Yet one former honourable member from our patch does appear to have played a significant part in influencing a key part of David Cameron's "New Politics".

The ex-Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin seems to have been instrumental in the rule changes on ministerial cars.

It all stems from his recently-published political diaries, A View from the Foothills.

In there he writes about his time as a junior minister and the battle he had to go through to ditch his ministerial car.

On one occasion, he was amazed when a car with not one but two drivers travelled all the way up from Whitehall to Sunderland with some trivial papers that he believed could have easily been sent by post.

They told him they'd also be driving back in a few days time to pick the same papers up.

He had to fight pretty hard then to try and avoid using the car, and he tried to persuade his government colleagues that all ministers should follow suit.

But he came across resistance both amongst the government and the civil service. Resistance that meant most ministers kept their cars - Durham North's Kevan Jones being one notable exception.

Mr Mullin also describes how the whole system was dedicated to increasing the use of the cars rather than minimising mileage.

Drivers relied on overtime to top up meagre wages, so were only too keen to turn up at any time to ferry ministers round.

Chris MullinChris Mullin remembers some ministers would agree to be driven long distances back to their constituencies merely to earn their drivers some extra cash.

It seems all that was taken in by one particularly avid reader of Mr Mullin's diaries - David Cameron.

He told Chris Mullin a few months before taking office that having read his book, he was going to propose severe limits on the use of ministerial limos.

And so now many more ministers will be walking and taking public transport.

But for how long?

In an article for the BBC website, Chris Mullin believes it won't be long before the ministerial car bites back.

Just wait for the first time a minister leaves important papers on a train, he warns, and see then how strong the Government's determination is to end the era of the Prius minister!

Tim Farron to stand for Lib Dem deputy leadership

Richard Moss | 15:56 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010

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Tim Farron MPMore developments on leadership roles in two parties today - both in Labour and perhaps more unexpectedly in the Liberal Democrats.

The Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron has now officially announced that he will stand for the now vacant post of Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats. Vince Cable resigned from the position yesterday.

This was first sniffed out by Newsnight's Political Editor Michael Crick who blogged on the subject from his holiday in Mr Farron's Lake District constituency (I must tell my boss not to expect exclusives from my holiday to Florida later this year!)

Mr Crick believed an official announcement was a little way off, but these things have a momentum of their own.

So a few minutes after I tweeted a link to Michael Crick's blog (follow me on Twitter here), I got a news release from Tim Farron announcing his candidature.

He says he'll remain Westmorland's man first and foremost but does want to continue to have a leading role in his party.

You'll remember that Tim Farron did not get a job in government, even though there is no Lib Dem in Defra - the department which he was shadowing before the election.

Mr Farron says he has been urged by friends and colleagues to run, and I'm not surprised.

He's a popular figure in the party. At last year's Lib Dem conference I watched him deliver a funny and engaging speech which clearly went down well with the party faithful.

And the party could certainly do with some of his campaigning magic.

It was an achievement in itself to prise away Westmorland and Lonsdale from the Conservatives after 100 years in 2005.

But this time round he achieved a massive 11% swing to take his majority from 800 to a whacking 12,000.

He is generally thought to be on the left of the party too, so might make a sceptical - if so far supportive - counterbalance to the senior Lib Dems in the coalition government with the Conservatives.

He still has to win of course, and may face some tough opposition from Simon Hughes, but he's certainly setting the pace.

The other development is slightly less revelatory - it's David Miliband's new campaign website.

I spent sections of yesterday afternoon staring at a near-blank screen telling me the new site was coming soon.

It built up such frenzy of expectation that I was anticipating a wonder of the worldwide web.

It's not that perhaps, but clearly some work and thought has gone into it.

There are the Top 10 David facts. You may not be surprised he was behind Building Schools for the Future. But did you know his snack of choice is a Twirl, and not a banana after all? You can't top the taste of a Miliband.

A Conservative poster of David Miliband with a bananaHis favourite book isn't one of his father's Marxist tracts either, but The Gruffalo.

Generally though the website is short and snappy and has echoes of Obama in his invitation for people to hold "house meetings" to support his campaign and discuss the future of the Labour party. (Nothing personal but I'm washing my hair that night if you invite me to one).

Obama also turns up in a campaign video on the site, shaking hands with Mr Milband, but actually there's plenty of local interest in it too as South Shields features prominently.

Mind you, I think I might have ditched the accompanying music. It's a strangely maudlin violin piece which grates after a few minutes.

In fact, it's so sad, I thought a voiceover would pop up at the end of the video to say, "Sadly David Miliband passed away shortly after this recording."

Of course, he's still alive and kicking, as is his campaign for the leadership. Here's the latest list of the local MPs backing him and other candidates:

David Miliband - 9 - Hugh Bayley (York Central), Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough), Alan Campbell (Tynemouth), Jenny Chapman (Darlington), Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central), Pat Glass (Durham NW), Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South), Jamie Reed (Copeland), Phil Wilson (Sedgefield).

Ed Miliband - 4 - Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham), Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland), Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle North), Grahame Morris (Easington).

Ed Balls - 4 - Dave Anderson (Blaydon), Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South), Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West), Iain Wright (Hartlepool)

Regionally, still no takers so far for Andy Burnham, Diane Abbott or John McDonnell.

Guarded optimism on Teesside over Corus steel sale

Richard Moss | 12:07 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010

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Corus steelworksWhisper it and don't get carried away, but there are some optimistic noises about the future of the Corus steelworks being heard today.

A delegation of unions and politicians is off to Thailand to talk to a potential buyer - SSI - and the Corus management are talking about the possibility of a sale.

But there's still some way to go yet.

I've just spoken to the new Middlesbrough South MP Tom Blenkinsop. He's heading off to Thailand this evening with national and local union officials and the new Redcar MP Ian Swales.

He says he doesn't want to get carried away yet as he's wary of offering another false dawn to a workforce that has had its hopes raised and dashed too often.

He told me we are still in the same situation as we have been for several weeks.

He believes the Thai steelmakers SSI are credible bidders but the ball lies firmly in Corus's court.

They need to prove that they are serious about finding a new buyer for the Redcar Teesside Cast Products works.

Tom Blenkinsop MPFrom that point of view at least the company is making the right noises.

The Corus Chief Executive, Kirby Adams, has said talks are continuing and he's expecting a "good result".

The key may be the market for steel. The unions and the Corus management believe demand is rising again in Europe, and that could offer a future for steelmaking on Teesside.

And Corus's owners Tata have reported a return to profit in their European steel division.

If the current negotiations do produce a sale, it would be a remarkable development, but you suspect the workers will greet the news with a healthy dose of cynicism.

And even if a sale did go through we don't know how many of the 1,600 workers who are being laid off will be needed.

The delegation to Thailand is back on Sunday, so we may know a little more then.

Queen's Speech spells end for One North East

Richard Moss | 15:04 UK time, Wednesday, 26 May 2010

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The Queen and Prince Philip in Parliament for the Queen's SpeechThere were few surprises in the Queen's Speech but plenty for the region to chew over.

Our councils do seem to be getting more powers.

They'll take over the housing and planning responsibilities that were held on a regional basis up to now.

And alongside business they'll also play a key role in the replacements for regional development agencies, which will now get the chop.

But at the same time our councillors' role in education will be marginalised.

Hundreds of schools could apply for academy status, taking them out of local authority control.

I'll be interested to know what Liberal Democrat councillors in the region make of that.

As I remember their party's manifesto actually committed them to bringing many academies back under the umbrella of their local councils.

But what of the regional development agencies?

They will be abolished, but what the Coalition is proposing could allow a kind of "Son of One North East" to emerge.

The plan is to create local enterprise partnerships. Originally they looked likely to be based in local areas - ie Teesside, Tyneside etc.

But it does sound now like they could be run on a regional basis, and the Association of North East Councils has said that's what they would like to happen.

The new partnership would have a much tighter brief than One North East, certainly losing control over planning and housing policy.

What's not clear yet though is how the changes will affect its budget, and responsibility over areas like tourism.

It's far less clear, and I suspect less likely, that councils in Yorkshire and the North West will want to keep a single agency.

Cumbria might welcome the chance to have its own partnership, but there might be some concerns about how it might compete alongside the big cities in the North West and against a regional agency over the Pennines in the North East.

Intriguingly, there was no mention yesterday of plans to have a referendum on creating a city mayor in Newcastle.

The Government insist they still have plans to do that, possibly without legislation, but as yet we don't know how this will happen.

Meanwhile, the first victims of public sector cutbacks have found out their fate.

More than 60 passport examiners in the Durham office will lose their jobs at the end of June because of the Government's decision to scrap ID cards and biometric passports.

Labour believe they could be the first of many to find themselves seeking work, pointing out that at the same time the Government has scrapped some of the schemes designed to find people work - in particular the Future Jobs Fund.

And as I write, the race for the leadership of the party remains an all Miliband affair.

Miliband D, now has the most nominations - 48 - while Miliband E has 41.

Here's the latest list of local backers for the candidates:

David Miliband - 9 - Hugh Bayley (York Central), Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough), Alan Campbell (Tynemouth), Jenny Chapman (Darlington), Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central), Pat Glass (Durham NW), Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South), Jamie Reed (Copeland), Phil Wilson (Sedgefield).

Ed Miliband - 4 - Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham), Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland), Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle North), Grahame Morris (Easington).

Ed Balls - 1 - Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West).

No takers regionally so far for Andy Burnham, Diane Abbott or John McDonnell.

Whoever gets nominated will take part in a hustings in Newcastle on June 26.

(Not) Building Schools for the Future?

Richard Moss | 13:56 UK time, Sunday, 23 May 2010

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Crumbling window frame at Hurworth SchoolWe should get more detail this week about just where the axe may fall in terms of cuts, but already there are plenty of people worried.

They include head teachers in schools which thought they were next in line for money from the Building Schools for the Future campaign.

Schools in Cumbria, Darlignton, Gateshead, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton, North Tyneside and Durham are waiting to complete contracts for more than £1bn.

Many thought their new school buildings were all but approved, but a change of government has thrown that into doubt.

The Politics Show visited Hurworth School near Darlington this week. A school which has waited for years for a new building.

Consequently, its building is not looking good, but what now are its chances of an upgrade?

The mood music from the new coalition isn't great.

They want to review all of Labour's spending commitments, and that's likely to include the school building programme.

On the Politics Show today, the new Conservative MP for Stockton South, James Wharton, insisted that doesn't mean all the projects will be stopped.

James Wharton MPInstead, he said they'll be reviewed case by case.

But he believes Building Schools for the Future hasn't always delivered for communities.

He points to the strings attached to some projects, including the controversial plans to put a new school on the site of Preston Park in Teesside.

Instead, he believes some communities - including in his own constituency - might benefit more from the Tories' Free Schools programme.

This is where groups could be free to set up their own new schools. He's already talking to a group of parents in Stockton South who are interested in doing just that.

For Labour though, it's straightforward. The money for new schools was promised and budgeted for and should be delivered.

It does though look like the golden age of school building has come to an end.

New North MPs predicted to make impact

Richard Moss | 06:00 UK time, Friday, 21 May 2010

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Rory Stewart MPAll of our new MPs will be hoping to make an impact in Westminster next week.

But four of them in particular have already been highlighted as having the potential to get noticed.

They all feature in a list published by Total Politics magazine today.

It selects the 50 new MPs most likely to make an impact.

Two of the new Northern women entering parliament make it into the list.

The new Labour MP for Newcastle Central Chi Onwurah makes it to number 37.

Bridget Phillipson is also in there at 33. She's already become noteworthy for being one of the youngest new MPs (she's 26), and for being the first elected to the new parliament as her Houghton and Sunderland South seat was the first to declare.

Bridget Phillipson MPThe magazine also picks out Wansbeck's new Labour MP Ian Lavery.

As you'd expect from the President of the National Union of Mineworkers, he has traditional socialist views, and that's why he's in at 14.

But the top spot from the region goes to Conservative Rory Stewart. The Penrith and the Border MP has already attracted attention for his colourful CV.

Total Politics says Mr Stewart might also pose a problem for David Cameron though.

The Prime Minister has said he's keen to get political outsiders like Rory Stewart into the Commons.

But as the magazine points out: "A large test of Cameron's leadership will be how happily he can accommodate such free-thinking and independent characters in his party."

It also wonders how a maverick character like Stewart will fare in the Commons.

Of course others not on the list may also make an impression both in Westminster and locally.

The impact of all these new MPs is just one of the fascinating facets to this new parliament.

Mayors, primaries and council tax - Coalition plans for North

Richard Moss | 16:07 UK time, Thursday, 20 May 2010

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David Cameron and Nick CleggNow we've seen the full coalition agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, what more do we know about what the Government might have in store for us?

We certainly have some extra details, but some areas still remain hazy.

Regional Spatial Strategies are definitely going.

I mentioned these in a previous post. They were the blueprints drawn up region-by-region to decide which areas would be best for industry, how many homes would be built in different areas, where might be suitable for windfarms etcetera.

The North East's is supposed to run to 2021. Now though the coalition agreement says those powers will be handed to councils.

The Infrastructure Planning Commission established by Labour will also be abolished.

This was the organisation brought in to speed up the planning process for big developments such as nuclear power stations, large wind farms or railways that were thought to have national importance.

The Conservatives believe it's an unnaccountable quango, and the coalition say they'll replace it with something more democratic. We don't know what form that will take though.

For now though the Government Offices - who allocate money and act as the Government's presence in each region - will survive, but it may only be a temporary reprieve. The office in London is going immediately, and the case for abolishing the others will be examined

Our councils also get some attention.

The 12 largest English cities - including Newcastle - will have referendums on whether to have directly-elected mayors.

Councillors will also get the power to veto large pay packages for council executives, if they want they'll be able to reinstate the committee system that disappeared under Labour.

And councils could get more freedom, fewer grants will be ring-fenced and they'll get a "general power of competence" to give them the confidence to take risks and innovate.

But money could be tight. The agreement says council tax should be frozen in the first year, and in the second if possible.

They'll have to watch what they publish though, as the agreement says the Government will take action to prevent council newssheets unfairly competing with local newspapers.

And although Westmorland and Lonsdale's Tim Farron hasn't made it into government, one of his ideas - Home on the Farm - has made it into the agreement. It's a scheme to allow disused farm buildings to be turned into affordable homes.

Tim Farron MPHe'd also approve of plans to look at putting some elected members onto the authorities of National Parks like the Lake District, or Yorkshire Dales.

The Conservative plans to elect police commissioners and some members of Primary Care Trusts are also in the agreement, although the commissioners will have to be accountable in some way to local councillors.

Many of our constituencies could also be affected by the agreement's section on improving democracy.

The Government says over five years it will fund 200 all-postal primaries for candidate selection targeted at seats that haven't changed hands for many years.

So Labour strongholds like Easington, South Shields and Jarrow could be top of that list, but of course the coalition has no power to force the parties to adopt primaries.

On regional development agencies we aren't much the wiser really.

The Coalition wants to replace them with "Local Enterprise Partnerships" made of councillors and business representatives.

But it says they could take the form of regional development agencies where they are "popular". It doesn't define though how that popularity will be measured. Nor does it set out any timetable for change.

There's some encouragement for football supporters' trusts too. Newcastle United's supporters may be interested in particular to see a commitment to change the rules to encourage co-operative ownership of clubs.

We'll have to wait for next week to see what parts of the agreement will be a priority.

Who the North's MPs are backing in Labour leadership race

Richard Moss | 16:53 UK time, Wednesday, 19 May 2010

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Ed Balls MPThe Labour leadership race now has four declared candidates so at least there's someone other than a Miliband in contention.

But who are our MPs currently supporting? Some have yet to declare but others have nailed their colours to the respective masts.

So far four have declared for David Miliband - Hugh Bayley from York, Tynemouth's Alan Campbell, Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson and Sunderland Central's Julie Elliott.

Three have backed Ed Miliband: Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham), Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) and Grahame Morris (Easington).

Ed Balls has won the support of three MPs too. They are Hartlepool's Iain Wright, Gateshead and Sunderland West's Sharon Hodgson and the Blaydon MP Dave Anderson.

None have yet declared for John McDonnell.

Is it all over for 'the region' in the North?

Richard Moss | 16:19 UK time, Wednesday, 19 May 2010

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Tony Blair and John Prescott in 1997In 1997, the idea of "the region" looked like the future.

John Prescott began setting up regional chambers across England, regional government offices were established and regional development agencies formed.

And of course the plan then was to have a network of elected regional assemblies to oversee this new devolved country, and solve the so-called "English problem".

Of course, all of that came to a grinding halt in 2004 when the North East people - supposedly the most enthusiastic - overwhelmingly rejected the assembly idea in a referendum.

The unelected chamber lingered on in a living death for a couple of years before biting the dust, but regional decision-making was far from dead.

Regional ministers and Commons Committees were set up.

Regional development agencies like One North East or the North West Development Agency took over the chambers' planning powers.

They were put in charge of implementing a planning blueprint for the region (the Regional Spatial Strategy) which decided where was best for new jobs and even how many homes could be built in each area.

Council leaders collectively would be part of drawing up the future strategy with the development agencies but inidividual councils had to live with regional decisions.

The spending priorities for transport were also decided regionally, with a pot of money handed down from London.

And the justification for all this regional decision-making? A mix of both devolution and economies of scale.

Its supporters argued that this was handing power closer to the people, as many of the decisions taken regionally had been overseen in the past by Whitehall civil servants.

But they also argued that you needed a regional not local overview when deciding where to put investment and homes to avoid planning chaos and competition between different communities.

Now though the age of the region looks certain to come to an end.

The new coalition has already done away with regional ministers. (There's no equivalent of Nick Brown). And the regional parliamentary committees surely can't be long for the world.

Nick BrownIt's possible some regional development agencies may survive - maybe only One North East - but in a much-reduced form and with a much-reduced budget.

Regional planning powers will go back to councils.

Communities not regions will decide how many new homes should be built, and where new investment should go.

Pots of regional transport money look likely to disappear.

Other regional organisations are likely to disappear, or at best be merged. But this is going to take some getting used to, particularly in the North East.

The political establishment and many in the business community do see the region as a cohesive whole.

Importantly for the coalition, that includes many Liberal Democrats who persuaded Vince Cable to change his party's policy towards regional development agencies in particular.

The question is will voters see it the same way?

I doubt many of them have a particular attachment to regional housing boards.

But Labour will want to portray the changes as an attack on a region which only supplies four MPs for the government benches.

It will then be up to the coalition to prove they're serious about the alternative to regional decision-making - the genuine devolution of powers to councils and communities.

We should find out more about the demise of the regions and what the alternative might be in next week's Queen's Speech.

Shields hosts Miliband's bid to be 'Next Labour' leader

Richard Moss | 17:35 UK time, Monday, 17 May 2010

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David Miliband makes his pitch in South ShieldsA young MP from the North East begins his bid to become Labour leader with a speech in his constituency in front of local party members.

He goes on to win the contest, and three elections for his party.

That, of course, was Tony Blair. The year 1994.

But in 2010, can David Miliband follow the same pattern to success?

It's certainly started in similar vein.

He's another young Labour MP beginning a bid for leadership with a speech amongst the party faithful. The only apparent change - the speaker and the venue (the Customs House in South Shields rather than Trimdon Labour Club).

But there are differences.

In 1994, Labour was the coming force in politics. A tired Tory government looked ripe for the taking.

16 years on, and it's Labour that's tired, out of office, and out of touch with large numbers of the electorate.

And so there were admissions of failure from David Miliband in his speech, acknowledging Labour had not just lost, but "lost badly".

A failure to appreciate the concerns of voters in South Shields and beyond about immigration, anti-social behaviour and education was partly to blame .

But he also pointed to a failure by Labour to modernise the relationship of the party with its members and the voters.

But there was also a desire to move on.

The Blair-Brown era was over, he said. The divisions between the two camps irrelevant. Crucial, you sense because there is a danger David Miliband could lose out by being seen as the Blairite candidate.

So instead of New Labour, his vision was "Next Labour".

There was some thoughtful stuff about what Labour should stand for, empowering the individual but also offering the protection of the state.

Brendan Foster is among the audience watching David MilibandAnd his electoral roots in the North East showed through in the talk of the need for the "politics of belonging" - acknowledging the need for politicians to appreciate what communities look like from the "semi detached house or the tower block" and not just Westminster.

What was missing though was tubthumping passion. This was often cool, hard analysis.

There was talk of idealism, and of Labour's record, but perhaps not the inspiration that some party members may be searching for.

After defeat and 13 years of the compromises of government, some of the party may yearn to feel good again about themselves and the Labour cause.

This speech probably didn't offer that. Instead David Miliband will have to hope Labour members want to be reflective and consider the changes needed to get them back into office.

He'll also have to hope they decide it's David and not Ed Miliband who has those answers.

So far Miliband Snr has won the support of 20 or so MPs, including Tynemouth's Alan Campbell, Sedgefield's Phil Wilson and Sunderland Central's Julie Elliott.

Oh, and of course many members in South Shields.

But he's now heading off for a tour around the country to try and convince others that Labour should again place its trust in a leader from the North East.

The curious cocktail of the North's new politics

Richard Moss | 12:44 UK time, Sunday, 16 May 2010

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Nick Clegg and David CameronI've had my first taste of the new politics and it's going to take some getting used to!

This week was the first Politics Show ever broadcast without a Labour government in office.

And of course there are very few political journalists alive who have ever interviewed the representatives of a coalition administration.

Yet that is the reality the voters, the politicians and journalists have now got to get used to.

You can see how it all worked out in the programme on the BBC's iPlayer.

Our panel discussion pitched together Durham North's Kevan Jones for Labour, Yorkshire MEP Timothy Kirkhope for the Conservatives and the new Redcar MP Ian Swales for the Lib Dems.

And what an unusual cocktail it turned out to be.

Kevan Jones seemed positively liberated by being in Opposition. Revelling in being able to turn his fire on both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, rather than defending decisions his government had taken.

Ian Swales was the first Liberal Democrat I've ever interviewed about being in government, and had to adjust to defending Conservative policies as well as his own party's.

And then you had Tim Kirkhope - a Conservative weighing in to defend the Lib Dems.

It really is a new politics!

Kevan Jones was immediately in old-style attack mode though on the coalition policies.

There were some half truths being bandied about by the former Labour minister.

One North East is being abolished according to Mr Jones - it may possibly go, but as yet it's fate hasn't been decided.

He also claimed Hartlepool and Cumbria won't get new nuclear power stations, when actually it's the anti-nuclear Lib Dems who've given ground in that area.

But one issue he latched onto is going to dominate discussions over the next few weeks - the scale of cuts and their impact on our region.

Ian Swales MPThe Lib Dems are now going along with the £6bn of cuts that the Conservatives say are necessary immediately, and they will want to study carefully what that could mean.

In reality, that will be just the first tranche of cuts which could be ten times that value.

The coalition will point to the deficit left by Labour, and blame the scale of the problem on Gordon Brown's mismanagement of the public finances.

And there are already stories circulating of previously unknown spending commitments that Labour rushed through in the last weeks of office that will make life even more difficult for the new government.

But they will still be the ones implementing the cuts and that will be seized upon by the coalition's opponents.

Kevan Jones mentioned the impact of the decision to scrap Labour plans for ID cards and biometric passports.

Much of that work was going to be carried out by the Gateshead firm De La Rue, and there could be job implications there.

There are also stories already about an embargo on new school buildings in parts of our patch - in Gateshead again and in Cumbria.

Meanwhile, there are other pressing issues too.

Ian Swales will be meeting representatives from Corus's parent company Tata this week to discuss what can be done to find a buyer for Redcar's steelworks.

So it may be new politics, but in some cases it's the same old problems.

Will the new coalition go nuclear over power?

Richard Moss | 15:23 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010

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SellafieldOne of many areas that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition have had to try and tiptoe their way through is nuclear power.

It's a big issue for our region with plans for up to three new nuclear stations in Cumbria, and another in Hartlepool.

In the election manifestos, there couldn't have been a clearer divide between the Conservatives and Lib Dems.

The Tories said they wanted to press ahead with new nuclear power stations as long as they didn't need public subsidy.

The Liberal Democrats were categorical - no new nuclear.

Yet now one of their number - Chris Huhne - will be in charge of the department charged with introducing a new generation of nuclear power stations. (Likened by some to having a vegan in charge of Mcdonalds).

So the coalition agreement goes out of its way to try and square a circle.

The Conservatives will be allowed to press ahead with the drafting of a national planning statement which will include new nuclear build.

That will then be put to parliament, at which point a Liberal Democrat spokesperson will be allowed to speak against it.

The Lib Dem MPs will also be free to abstain in the vote on the plans.

But they won't be free to vote against, or turn it into a confidence vote.

It's one of a number of issues where there's some recognition of the Lib Dem point of view without any move to temper the policy.

Realpolitik suggests their votes wouldn't make any difference anyway because most Labour MPs are likely to vote for new nuclear stations and help the Conservatives carry the day.

But will MPs who've campaigned against nuclear power for so many years really be happy to abstain rather than vote against?

It's one of a number of issues where that problem may arise. The agreement promises similar abstentions on the married tax allowance and on tuition fees.

It may be one of the potential flash points in the coalition.

There might be more problems for the nuclear power plans though.

The Conservatives say they must be built without public subsidy. That would be a first, as there's not a single nuclear site in the world that hasn't received some state funding.

William HagueMeanwhile, although there are still some ministerial appointments to come, our region will have to get used to having very few people at the ministerial table.

William Hague is Foreign Secretary of course, but so far there have been no other ministers appointed from our patch.

There's no sign of Westmorland and Lonsdale's Lib Dem Tim Farron, or Scarborough and Whitby Conservative Robert Goodwill yet, both of them were part of their parties' shadow ministerial teams.

And Lord Michael Bates' name has also yet to appear in the ministerial ranks.

We also don't know whether there will be regional ministers, or representatives for Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside as the Conservatives had originally planned.

The lack of northern ministers is almost inevitable given the lack of Lib Dem and Conservative MPs.

But the new administration will have to prove it can listen to the needs of this region, even if it hasn't provided many people for the government benches.

What will the new coalition mean for the North?

Richard Moss | 14:31 UK time, Wednesday, 12 May 2010

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David Cameron and Nick Clegg

The waiting's over then.

For Gordon Brown, for David Cameron, for Nick Clegg, for the journalists, for the voters, and for the Labour leadership contenders.

And it is historic. After all the wrangling, a genuine Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

Astonishing really. Would Lib Dem MPs like Sir Alan Beith, Tim Farron and the newly elected Ian Swales ever have expected to be sitting on the government benches with the Conservatives?

So what will it mean for the parties in the region?

For many local Lib Dems, there is some excitement at finally having some power.

Quite a few I've spoken to today seem encouraged by the kind of concessions they've wrung from David Cameron, and feel they can help the region by tempering Tory policies.

But others said there were questions they still wanted answering before being convinced.

And there are undoubtedly some qualms amongst a generation of Lib Dems who came into politics to fight what they thought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives were doing to the North.

Some are worried that they will now be responsible for the severe cuts that could be coming our way.

And you suspect many voters would also be taken aback that their Lib Dem vote has helped to put the Conservatives in power.

Labour's charge of "Vote Lib Dem, get Conservative" cannot fail to have real resonance now.

One councillor has told us privately that he may not bother standing in the next election because he feels certain to lose his seat in a backlash.

Labour will look to capitalise on that, but a new kind of politics also carries dangers for them.

It's possible David Cameron may have achieved what Tony Blair dreamed of, a realignment of politics that makes it very hard for the Opposition to get back into government.

He will hope to claim the centre ground for many years to come, and keep Labour out of power.

Some in the party seemed satisfied to go into Opposition yesterday, believing they can bounce back, but if the current coalition does work that wait could be five years.

And the risk for Labour is a potential lurch to the left as there are significant elements within the party who will want to use this defeat to cast off the New Labour chains.

Which brings us to the leadership contest.

As I write David Miliband is preparing to formally announce his candidature.

But what are his chances?

Alan Johnson has declared for him today but there are doubts about how much support he can claim in the parliamentary party and amongst the trade unions.

Lord Kinnock suggested as much on Radio 4's Today programme this morning.

He may even face competition from his brother.

I think it's a pretty open and unpredictable contest.

For the Conservatives in the region, they've achieved what they wanted - power - even if they've had to compromise on some of their policies.

But now they face a real gear change.

From being on the attack against Labour's record in the region, they're going to have to defend what are likely to be some pretty tough decisions.

And with a coalition partner to keep happy, we really are in uncharted political territory.

But before we move onto pastures new, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on what's also behind us now.

Gordon Brown's departure from Downing Street was an emotional one yesterday.

This time last week, I was heading to Carlisle for his eve of poll visit.

Gordon Brown on his final campaign visit to CarlisleThere I found an energised and even cheerful Gordon Brown, liberated by knowing that the pressure was now off.

After interviewing him, I was keen to watch him making his final pitch from Carlisle on the Six O'Clock news.

I even took a couple of snaps of him on my phone because It felt like one of those moments you'd always want to remember - the passing of an era.

I suspected it would be the last time he would be in the region as Prime Minister, and that's proved to be the case.

Like so many political careers, his has ended in failure.

But love him or loathe him there's no question that one of the most important political figures of our lifetimes has now left the stage.

It's perhaps too soon to judge his legacy, for good or ill, but it's already becoming a very different political landscape without him.

Still waiting...

Richard Moss | 13:41 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010

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Gordon Brown goes back into Downing Street after announcing his resignation as Labour leaderI've been trying to make a start on this blog entry all morning, but like almost everyone, I have no idea exactly how all the to-ing and fro-ing is going to pan out.

Yesterday morning, I was convinced the only likely deal was a Lib-Con alliance.

Then after Gordon Brown's resignation as Labour leader last night a Lib-Lab coalition appeared to be favourite.

Now as I write it seems Lib-Con is back on the cards.

But equally it's also possible that the Conservatives may end up trying to go it alone as a minority administration.

In the end I do come back to what I said in my last post.

The most likely alternatives remain a Conservative-Liberal Democrat deal, or a minority Tory government.

The numbers for Lib-Lab don't add up, especially as there are now a growing number of Labour MPs who view a pact as undesirable and potentially disastrous.

It can't be ruled out yet, but as time goes on and dissent rises, the prospects of it being viable recede.

I know Labour MPs in our region who have nothing but contempt for most Liberal Democrats, and are unlikely to back a deal that could unravel within months.

But can some of our local Lib Dems stomach a deal with the Conservatives?

Many of them first became involved in politics during the 1980s because of their opposition to Thatcherism.

The one thing they certainly share with their Labour colleagues in the North, is a fierce antipathy towards the Conservatives.

One has told me that they could cope with a Tory deal, but only if it was an exceptionally good one, particularly on voting reform.

The Conservatives have offered a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, but to this Lib Dem member that was unlikely to be enough.

Nick CleggSo it's possible Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem leadership could carve out a deal only to see it fail to win the support of enough MPs and party representatives.

How long then can this drag on?

In theory, until the Queen's Speech, but in reality, it seems unlikely it can drag on longer than the end of this week. There is pressure for a decision today.

If the Lib Dems can't agree a deal with either party, that leaves David Cameron pressing to rule alone.

That hardly sounds like a recipe for stability either.

The longer term question is what this will do to the public's appetite for an electoral system that will produce almost permanent coalition government.

If a deal can be done quickly, memories may fade, a coalition may work, but if the chaos drags on, the public may hanker once more for clear results.

Meanwhile, I've just heard that David Miliband's heading for 10 Downing Street.

Only to visit for now. His future - Labour leadership contender or the next potential Prime Minister - also depends on the decision of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

And, although not an issue of national importance, the prevarication is also making planning our programme this week a little tricky!

From PM to voter - we're in the waiting game

Richard Moss | 13:21 UK time, Sunday, 9 May 2010

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10 Downing StreetThe negotiations continue, but the deal has yet to be done.

And at the moment most of our local politicians, activists - and indeed we the voters - can do is watch and wait.

For now, normal politics also seems to have ground to a halt.

Nick Brown - still for the moment Minister for the North East and Chief Whip - was at his evasive best in the Politics Show today when asked about the PM's future, and rather magnanimous with his rivals.

And indeed Conservative Deputy Chairman Lord Bates and the Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith were also not in the mood to play party politics.

Perhaps that's right at the moment. It is important that the parties find a way of ensuring the nation gets a stable government.

And for that reason, it does look like the game is up for Gordon Brown.

A Lib-Lab pact would not deliver a Commons majority, and a coalition which also brought in assorted nationalists and the one Green MP does not sound like a recipe for stability.

Sir Alan Beith and other Lib Dems have been pointing that out today. They can't close the Labour option altogether but the two most likely scenarios now are a Lib-Con pact, or a Cameron minority government.

The pact may well depend on how far the Tories are prepared to shift on electoral reform.

So far all that's been offered is a discussion by a committee of MPs.

But on the Politics Show today Lord Bates seemed to show more enthusiasm for PR than many of his colleagues.

He pointed out, rightly, that it might actually deliver them more seats in the North East.

Local Lib Dems will be nervous of a deal though.

Take their huge victory in Redcar. They - and not the Conservatives - attracted a lot of Labour defectors, but what will the new MP Ian Swales' voters now make of their MP being part of a coalition or pact with David Cameron?

They will need some serious concessions from the Tories to make it worth their while.

As for Labour, if Gordon Brown is going, a leadership contest may be days away.

And the focus will quickly shift to South Shields and David Miliband.

Certainly a contender, but can he convince the Labour party that he can bring them back to power sooner rather than later?

The Election 2010 bag is poised for actionIn the meantime, you may have almost forgotten Thursday and Friday's results.

But it's worth remembering that the region does now look different. For the next election we will have far more marginals.

Middlesbrough South, Darlington and Berwick are all increasingly tight. And even Hartlepool now looks vulnerable - but to the Conservatives not the Lib Dems.

That's thanks to a 6.8% swing to the Conservatives in the North East - interestingly much larger than the national average of 5%.

Worth bearing in mind in case we get another election soon!

For that reason you'll be relieved to know my Election 2010 bag is still alive and well.

A bit like the Shadow Minister for Tyneside Alan Duncan, it's had no profile for the last fortnight (my bag's locked in my car boot but I have no idea where Alan Duncan's been confined to).

But it will be ready for revival if pacts fail and we end up facing an Autumn election.

How would local Lib Dems view a Tory pact?

Richard Moss | 15:49 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

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Brown, Cameron and Clegg

The votes have barely been counted, but events are moving on apace.

First Gordon Brown and then David Cameron make their pitches to be PM, and to work with the Liberal Democrats.

But it's the Conservatives that will get first chance to seal the deal.

How though would northern Lib Dems view a deal with the Tories?

After defeat in Newcastle East last night, their candidate Wendy Taylor, talked of finding voters on the doorstep who switched from Lib Dem to Labour to keep the Conservatives out.

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And their Newcastle Central candidate said something similar.

That's why they thought the party didn't make the progress it wanted to in the North.

So what then would be the impact of sustaining a Conservative government in a pact, or even a formal coalition?

It might be very difficult to sell to Liberal Democrats here.

Although Labour have been their targets in seats in Durham and Newcastle, it is the Conservatives they've been seeking to replace as the main Opposition in the North East.

They might face more hard and tough questions on the doorstep if they did ensure David Cameron was our next Prime Minister.

Of course, a deal with Labour isn't without problems.

They are used to fighting each other tooth and nail in many of our constituencies.

But I suspect many of the Lib Dems in our region feel philosophically closer to Labour than the Conservatives.

There is power tantalisingly in view though, ironic given the party's disappointing performance overall.

But what they really want is voting reform. Labour say they'll deliver it, the Conservatives just say they'll discuss it.

This may be all part of a game that eventually leads to a minority Cameron government.

The negotiations could drag on through the weekend.

One footnote though. Labour has gained some morale-boosting victories in the local elections.

Having local elections on the same day as a general election always tends to help the Labour vote, but there have been some significant wins.

They took eight seats in North Tyneside, seven from the Conservatives. That adds to the evidence that Labour managed to get their vote out in an area where they saw off the Tory challenge in marginal Tynemouth.

In Newcastle they added to Lib Dem woes by taking a big chunk out of their council majority. They took six seats from them, winning another one from an Independent.

They also took three seats from the Lib Dems in Gateshead, and three from the Conservatives in Sunderland.

There were also wins in Hartlepool and South Tyneside.

A national election with local results

Richard Moss | 11:06 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

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Liberal Democrats celebrate victory in RedcarWhat a remarkable night.

Swings all over the place, surprises with seats changing hands, surprises with seats not changing hands.

But above all, the message from last night's results was clear even if the result wasn't.

An election is about 650 contests in 650 constituencies, with all the potential uncertainty and variation that entails. And the local factors you don't hear about in Prime Ministerial TV debates have played a part in making the picture complicated and unpredictable.

Redcar summed that up.

I'll put my hands up now and say at the start of the campaign I thought Liberal Democrat ambitions there were just that - ambitions.

They believed they could win, but their achievement there is still remarkable.

A 20%-plus swing turning Vera Baird's 12,000 majority into a 5,000-vote victory for Ian Swales.

He certainly harnessed the palpable anger over the closure of the Corus steelworks.

But this was also an area that had been worked on for five years. Council seats had been won in safe Labour areas, Vera Baird's support chipped away.

And that produced a result totally out of character with the national and regional picture.

Yet overall it was a disappointing night for the Liberal Democrats.

They failed to win their top target City of Durham. They failed to win any seats in Newcastle. They lost in Harrogate and Outer York.

In a significant number of North East seats - Hartlepool, Bishop Auckland, Durham North - they slipped from second to third as the Conservatives overtook them.

But then how are we to explain some of the variations in that Conservative vote?

Conservatives win at declaration in CarlisleThey achieved some spectacular swings to take Carlisle and Stockton South. They achieved similar leaps in support to push close in Middlesbrough South and Darlington.

And they got double digit swings in safe Labour seats like Washington and Sunderland West.

But then in the top target Tynemouth there was barely any swing at all, and Labour's Alan Campbell survived quite easily in the end.

And Sunderland Central - the one Wearside seat where they'd put huge effort in - failed to return the same spectacular swing as the neighbouring constituencies.

Again there have to be local factors involved. Personal support perhaps for Alan Campbell in Tynemouth, perhaps an ability for Labour to get their vote out in crucial seats. (Turnout was 70% in Tynemouth)

But however local the factors, in many ways our election results mirror what's happened in the country.

There are questions for all three main parties to answer.

Labour have lost seats and lost ground, the Liberal Democrats have failed to make the progress they'd hoped for, and the Conservatives have advanced but not over the finishing line.

There are still seats to declare - four in Northumberland, as well as Copeland and Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria. They are counting this morning.

There may be plenty of potential twists yet before we know who will govern the country.

We have several key players in that process. Chief Whip Nick Brown may be involved in any negotiations, David Miliband may yet have a critical role to play, and William Hague waits to see if he will become Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister.

Many of the counts are complete but the story of election 2010 isn't over yet.

North at heart of campaign's last 24 hours

Richard Moss | 12:17 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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David Cameron buys fish and chips in CarlisleIt's the final push and the last 24 hours of this election has found the North at the heart of the campaign.

It started last night when David Cameron arrived in Carlisle.

It was after 10pm when he fronted up, so not prime canvassing time.

But he did meet some firefighters to talk about the Conservative determination to halt plans to set up regional rather than local fire control rooms.

And he found time to buy fish and chips for himself and his team.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg is in Durham today, talking to students in their top North East target.

And after writing this I'm off to Cumbria where Gordon Brown is due to arrive on one of his last stops of the campaign.

So why are we getting so much attention?

A look at the polls provides the explanation.

They suggest the Conservatives are ahead but short of the lead they need to cross the winning line and form a Commons majority.

And that makes some of our seats absolutely crucial to the outcome.

Carlisle, Tynemouth, Stockton South and Copeland all need swings from Labour to Conservative of around 7 per cent or less.

That's exactly the swing the Tories need to win outright.

Nick Clegg in RedcarAnd for the Lib Dems, they need to push hard in these last few hours to claim seats like the City of Durham and Newcastle North to prove they've made progress on 2005.

With the polls suggesting that anything up to four in ten of us could change our minds before tomorrow, these last campaign stops could be critical.

The parties need to win over the waverers but also, particularly in the case of Labour and the Lib Dems, persuade their voters to turn out.

Labour historically finds it harder to get its vote out than the Conservatives, and in 2001 and 2005, the party believes some of their voters did stay at home.

Gordon and Sarah Brown in SunderlandSo Gordon Brown needs to persuade supporters in Cumbria and beyond of the importance of this election.

The Lib Dems also have a challenge. Most polling I've seen suggests many of those won over by Nick Clegg in the TV debates are young - certainly under 30, often under 25.

In election after election they have been the least likely group to vote.

It's hardly surprising then that the Lib Dem leader should choose to spend some of his final few hours talking to Durham University students.

For the Conservatives, they need to show they can win again in the North.

They've put in the investment, and unlike 2001 and 2005, they've pushed really hard here.

They need to win here to get into government, but also to prove they are not just a southern party.

There's a lot at stake then in these final few hours of what is certainly the most unpredictable election for 18 years.

Of course you can follow all the results on the BBC, online, on radio and on TV.

I'll be in the City of Durham tomorrow night, but will be tweeting about how things are looking in the region.

But once the final campaign visit comes to a close today the focus will switch entirely to you - the voters.

Can Independents crash the Westminster party?

Richard Moss | 15:15 UK time, Tuesday, 4 May 2010

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Houses of ParliamentAt the height of the expenses row there were plenty of people talking about the need to have fully Independent MPs with no party affiliation.

But several months on from the peak of the expenses anger, are any of them actually likely to make it into parliament?

There are certainly more Independent candidates standing in this election - more than at any time since 1885.

There's 315 in total nationally - more than double the amount that stood five years ago. And in the North East and Cumbria there are 17 Independents competing for seats.

Many I suspect are struggling to make a huge impact.

They don't have the electoral machine or resources of the main political parties, they get no party political broadcasts, and little guaranteed time on television or radio.

But there is now a network which includes some of the Independent candidates and provides some framework for them.

Three of the local candidates are part of it. Dr Steven Ford in Hexham, Yvonne Hossack in Stockton South and Siamak Kaikavoosi in South Shields.

And certainly Dr Ford and Ms Hossack do seem to have had some impact.

Steven Ford is clearly doing something right as he was among four of the Hexham candidates asked to nominate a film to show at the local cinema - his choice Dr Strangelove!

(Guy Opperman, the Conservative, chose The Shawshank Redemption, Antoine Tinnion for Labour selected The Third Man and Lib Dem Andrew Duffield picked The End of Poverty).

The former GP also has a full manifesto I hasten to add as well as a taste for apocalyptic movies.

The talk on the ground in Stockton South is that solicitor Yvonne Hossack has also been gathering some support.

She may end up being a significant presence. Not perhaps by winning, but by taking some valuable votes in a marginal constituency.

But come May 7, it will be remarkable if Parliament isn't still overwhelmingly dominated by the three main parties.

Voter tests parties on fuel duty in debate

Richard Moss | 14:11 UK time, Tuesday, 4 May 2010

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The Politics Show economy debateYou may have noticed that I do like challenging politicians by asking them tricky questions.

But sometimes it is nice to sit back and watch someone else do it.

I had that experience on a couple of occasions on Sunday in the final pre-election Politics Show debate.

It's available on the BBC iPlayer still, our subject, the economy and jobs.

And our panel of politicians were given a tough time by a couple of our invited voters.

Steve Sinclair saw his motor repair business ruined by the Recession. He's now out of work, and wanted to know what the candidates could do to help.

But he wasn't shy of challenging their answers.

And even less reticent was young businessman Tony Earnshaw.

Tony EarnshawIn his mid-20s, he's already running a successful commercial cleaning business in the North East.

The politicians should have been forewarned though that this was a confident young man, as he'd already appeared on the BBC's Dragons Den.

His major concern was fuel prices, and he came brandishing his petrol and diesel bills, with the latest one £1,000 higher than the one from three months earlier.

It's well worth watching him push the politicians for answers.

And there's plenty of other interesting stuff in there, from a graduate struggling to find a permanent job to an apprentice trainer, worried about the parties' commitment to helping young people into work.

Party leaders in final weekend push

Richard Moss | 09:09 UK time, Tuesday, 4 May 2010

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Our politicians certainly didn't spend the Bank Holiday weekend relaxing.

If anything the arrival of Gordon Brown in the North East and the return of Nick Clegg to the region showed the campaign intensifying for the final push to Thursday.

The PM's visit to Sunderland was disturbed slightly by a heckler, although nobody's quite sure what he was heckling about.

Gordon Brown in Tynemouth but with Conservative placards behindPerhaps more disturbing for Mr Brown's team was the appearance of placard-waving Conservative activists at events which were supposed to be kept secret for security reasons.

The Prime Minister visited Tory targets Tynemouth and Sunderland Central and Newcastle North, which the Lib Dems hope to claim.

But I was also struck by where he chose not to visit.

The itinerary didn't include Tory target Stockton South or the City of Durham where the Lib Dems are increasingly optimistic about victory.

That may have been as much to do with logistics as political priorities, but I do sense Labour sent Gordon Brown to the seats where they believe they still have the best chance of seeing off their opponents.

And the tone of some of what the PM talked about - the emphasis on a Tory threat to North East jobs - has led to suggestions of a retreat to a core vote strategy.

But Labour can at least be buoyed by the latest polls which suggest their vote is stabilising, and that the Conservatives are still short of the votes needed to win an outright majority.

Nick Clegg meanwhile chose to arrive in Redcar - Labour majority 12,000 - on a day when polls in the Sunday papers suggested some waning in the Lib Dem surge.

So was he being overambitious in targeting a safe Labour seat?

Not at all according to him, local activists, and the candidate Ian Swales.

The Liberal Democrats on the ground believe it's five years of hard work and not the recent surge in support that will deliver them Vera Baird's seat.

Years which have seen the Lib Dems win a majority of council seats in the constituency, including some by-election victories in traditional Labour territory.

In the town hall meeting, Nick Clegg faced some pretty friendly questions at times, but was also pressed hard on issues like immigration.

He did make a direct appeal to a group which are crucial though - disillusioned Corus workers, labelling them victims of "Lord Mandelson's champagne socialism."

There were no heckles but as you can see from the video clip one Labour supporter did his best to disrupt the TV interviews before the meeting, even if his A4 sheet of paper did struggle to compete with the Lib Dem diamonds!

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But I still suspect the Lib Dems will still need to collect every last drop of anti-Labour sentiment they can find to win the seat.

If some of those voters choose to stay at home, or cast their votes for the Conservatives or the smaller parties then, that will make it harder to overturn such a large majority.

And although many in the steel unions have been critical of the Government, they have been more sympathetic to Vera Baird's personal efforts.

There are though signs of Labour concern. Yesterday saw the constituency's first Cabinet visit of the campaign as Health Secretary Andy Burnham turned up.

And one Labour candidate elsewhere in Teesside told me that they were seeing far more undecideds on the doorstep in the area than they'd like.

So plenty to play for as we enter the final 48 hours of Election 2010.

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