With the benefit of hindsight — isn’t everything so much clearer with hindsight? — it is a pity that Lord Heseltine has broken so publicly with Boris Johnson. If he had just agreed to disagree with him over Brexit, that would be one thing. But before the election he went so far as to ask his fellow Conservatives to vote Liberal Democrat with a view to denying Johnson a parliamentary majority. It is hard to see much of a way back from there.
It is a pity because Lord Heseltine could have offered uniquely useful advice to the re-branded One Nation Conservative Prime Minister as he seeks to embrace his new MPs from constituencies, many in northern England, that traditionally voted Labour.
Dispatched to Liverpool after the 1981 Toxteth riots in his role as Environment Secretary, Heseltine became at his own insistence minister for Merseyside. As such, he persuaded Margaret Thatcher not to give up on the city — as some, including the then Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, were advocating — and became its champion.
He helped to drum up investment not just for a selection of high-profile projects, including an international garden festival, Tate Liverpool and the regeneration of the Albert Docks, but for jobs and decent housing. He persuaded business from inside and outside the region that Liverpool had a future, while in London, he was grudgingly praised for managing to cut through Whitehall bureaucracy and get departments to work together on his Liverpool projects.
Since then, Heseltine’s Liverpool phase has received only intermittent attention, not least perhaps because it does not sit well with the prevailing image of heartless Thatcherism. Yet Liverpool did not entirely forget and he received the freedom of the city in 2012 — regarded as a quite remarkable gesture from a staunchly Labour council to a Tory peer. But there was criticism at the time and since, in particular that after the initial 12 months London’s interest started to wane, that more junior ministers and civil servants were sent to meetings, and that the initiative lost steam.
The ups and downs are well charted in Batting for the Poor, the just-published biography of the then Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard. And there were plenty of misgivings and disputes along the way.
Without Heseltine, though, it is more than likely that the city would have been left to its decline and that any regeneration would have been much longer in coming, if it ever did. The point is that Margaret Thatcher was open to persuasion; the Government’s purse-strings were partially untied, and having a convinced, articulate and well-connected champion in central government made a difference. This is a precedent that Boris Johnson should heed, with or without direct counsel from Lord Heseltine.
If something similar is attempted with the “new blue” constituencies, it will be crucial to avoid any impression of neo-colonialism; any envoy has to be careful not to behave as any sort of viceroy. But the benefit of having named and recognisable champions taking responsibility for long-term regeneration, people with a sense of mission who can serve as champions of their designated town or area, identify the opportunities and unlock the funds, cannot be contested.
As Lord Heseltine looks at it now — and said at a conference in London earlier this year — he sees his work in Liverpool as some of the most important of his career, not only in its own right, but in the example it set for renaissances elsewhere.
Nonetheless, that initial intervention was crucial in making Liverpool what it is today. Its city centre and the regenerated docks area are flourishing. The waterfront is as sparkling and distinctive as that of any erstwhile port city in the world. If you fly in to Liverpool, you arrive at John Lennon airport; it has capitalised with huge success — though some might feel ad nauseam — on the Beatles and their global fame, adding £82m a year to the local economy.
When I visited Liverpool at the very end of November, the central streets thronged with shoppers (the proof of their seriousness in their bulging bags); there were tourists; hotels were full. The blight described by so many reporters on pre-election profiles of the places where they grew up — John Lichfield’s report on Stoke-on-Trent being a classic of its kind — and reinforced for me by a visit I paid last year to Nottingham, where I spent the first 12 years of my life, does not apply to the main areas of Liverpool.
Where so many cities have approved insensitive redevelopment that seems only to have made incipient decline worse, Liverpool managed a massive, largely low-rise and outdoor redevelopment of its central commercial area that has brought the downtown back to life.
Politically, Liverpool has also held somewhat aloof from the regional pack. Along with Manchester, it was one of few northern cities to vote Remain (58 to 42 per cent) in the 2016 EU referendum. And in last week’s general election there were no defections to the Conservatives; none at all. All of its 14 constituencies remained faithful to Labour. Greater Manchester, in contrast, saw five seats change hands from Labour to Tory.
A recent study, one that made a bit of a stir in journalistic circles at least (UnHerd critique here ), suggested that Liverpool’s political exceptionalism, and specifically its vote for Remain in 2016, might be explained in part by the city’s 30-year long boycott of The Sun newspaper that followed its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. The academics’ thesis was that the absence of the eurosceptic Sun, and the shift of many of its readers to the pro-EU Mirror, might have helped to convert what had been a euro-sceptic city.
Among the flaws in their argument would be that Manchester voted even more strongly for Remain (60-40), that as a strong Labour-supporting city, Liverpool may have followed the party in its shift from being eurosceptic at the first, 1975 EU referendum to becoming pro-EU from the Kinnock and Blair years.
More to the point it’s possible that as a major port city, which has now graduated from cargo to cruises, Liverpool looks outward in a way that many cities elsewhere in the country might not. At least as significant may be the Irish dimension, which not only gives the city some of its distinctive character, but also a special relationship with the island of Ireland, both through direct ferry connectiions and continuing family links.
What is more, its successful regeneration, along with Liverpudlians’ fierce sense of their own identity, may have encouraged its voters to take a more positive view of the present than their fellow-countrymen in the Brexit-voting towns left behind.
This is another reason why Liverpool should perhaps be recognised as the current exception that could prove a future rule. If Boris Johnson is serious about his One Nation ambitions, and if he wants all those new votes he won last week to be more than just “lent” for the short-term purpose of “getting Brexit done”, then he could do worse than mobilise a team of special envoys to fan out across the country with the task of adapting the Liverpool model for elsewhere.
Of course, that could present something of a personal challenge for Johnson, whose history of relations with Liverpool has not been plain sailing. Most famously, when editor of The Spectator, he was dispatched there on the orders of Tory leader Michael Howard to apologise for an article in the magazine that said Liverpudlians liked to wallow in self-pity.
Then again, how better to start mending fences not just with Liverpool — presenting it as a template for successful regeneration — but with the erstwhile minister, now Tory grandee, who staked his personal and political reputation on the possibility that it could be done.