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The Great Escape

Whether Labour or Conservative, local and national transport initiatives look likely to play a key role in the next general campaign. Ed Owen reports.

Last week's Labour party conference introduced us to a new Prime Minister – someone who talks tough and seems quite prepared to fight his corner.

About time too, some might say. The new Gordon Brown was necessary to replace the old Gordon Brown who is miles behind in the polls and seems certain to lose the next election.

This year's party conference season has an added resonance because it is effectively the de facto beginning of the election campaign. While no election has yet been called, convention dictates that it will be some time from next summer.

Prior to Brown's big speech, the Labour party faithful were despondent. At fringe meetings, they seemed resigned to defeat, asking how Labour policies could be protected from a change in government. After Brown’s speech, the mood turned bullish.

TV coverage of the speech showed party members in tears, and as Brown turned on the Conservatives, the excitement rose.

His two key points were, "We did fix the roof while the sun was shining," rebutting attacks made by Conservative leader David Cameron and shadow Chancellor George Osborne, accusing Brown of squandering the nation’s resources while he was Chancellor.

The second point arose from the current state of the economy, and how Brown has been decisive in dealing with the credit crunch, listing things he says the Conservatives would have failed to do. "This is no time for a novice," he said to cheers.

But there is further intrigue. That evening BBC's Newsnight reported that transport secretary Ruth Kelly would step down in the next cabinet reshuffle.

Kelly's exit has been pored over by pundits. Was she one of the plotters and backstabbers out to get Brown? Or could the Prime Minister have wanted her to move out of the way to bolster the Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) campaign?

Kelly put her resignation down to family concerns, and it is fair to believe her; she does have four children. But it is also fair to say that her place on the north west political scene is under threat.

First, her hold on the Bolton West seat is marginal, and it seems the local electorate have not forgiven her for spending little time there. At one fringe meeting she mentioned that the last time she had been in Manchester, the "bus wars" were raging on the streets.

Oops! That was more than two years ago. Poll data suggests that Bolton West will go to the Tories with a comfortable majority whether Kelly stands or not.

Then there is the Manchester TIF bid. This is a bid for £1.5bn of TIF money to part-fund a £3bn boost for Manchester’s transport network.

The remainder will be raised from a congestion charge scheme. A referendum will decide what will eventually happen.

Assuming she fights her seat at the next election, Kelly's opponent will be Susan Williams. Williams is currently the leader of Trafford Council and vehemently anti-TIF.

Bolton Council is divided on the issue and has proposed a referendum, but it is thought to be one of the councils more likely to vote "no". As transport secretary, Kelly has encouraged local authorities to bid for money from the £2bn TIF pot.

There is room for a large scheme, most likely Manchester, which would gobble £1.5bn of the available funds, matched with cash raised from the congestion charge, and a smaller second scheme, probably the Bristol/Bath scheme, which would take the bulk of the remaining money.

However, the Manchester TIF referendum is on a knife-edge, with just 53% in favour according to the most recent poll. A further complication is that the referendum will work on a "first past the post" system, so seven of the 10 authorities involved must vote "yes".

It would be a severe embarrassment to the Government should Manchester fail to produce a 70% yes vote on 11 December, referendum day.

With the Manchester TIF referendum approaching and the government still looking relatively weak, despite Brown’s bounce back last week, the fighting over TIF will become increasingly vitriolic.

Kelly's position as transport secretary and sitting local MP could be troublesome, and leave the bid open to unnecessary attack.

The final problem for the government is that the TIF bid could be dismantled even with a "yes" vote.

The Conservatives have already signalled that they are against the TIF scheme as it stands. The battleground is likely to be Stockport. Stockport straddles the M60, one of the TIF boundaries, and so the congestion charging scheme will definitely affect local residents.

There is a risk that Stockport could decide not to install the cameras which record the details of number plates needed to collect congestion charge revenue.

Among Greater Manchester's 10 boroughs, Stockport, Trafford, and Bury councils are all opposed to the congestion charge. Stockport council leader and Liberal Democrat councillor Dave Goddard is among the most vociferous of opponents, as his borough, on the rail mainline to Manchester and London, already has strong public transport links and is likely to gain least from the benefits of the congestion charge.

All of this puts Kelly in a vulnerable position, so perhaps it is time for a fresh face to inject some authority into the TIF/ congestion charge debate. But if transport is an issue for Kelly and Labour, it could also trip up the Conservatives.

As this week's Conservative Party Conference got underway, it seemed that it the Tories were also set to shuffle their transport pack. Rumours circulated that high speed rail fan and high flying shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers was to be moved in an opposition reshuffle.

This could further impact on the looming transport debate as we head for the next election. Whoever fills the shoes of these two powerful women will almost certainly shape the battle for voters hearts and minds as the election looms.

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