June 2, 2023

It’s Saturday night on Middlesbrough High Street and a lager-soaked man called Dave is calling the Mayor of Teesside “a fucking wanker”. It’s not an unusual sentiment in these parts, where political apathy is particularly pervasive. Dave intervention, however, has a personal touch. For two months he worked for a company launched by Ben Houchen — a sportswear outfit called BLK that went under in 2018 with £3 million of debt.

Now, the Financial Times, Private Eye, The Yorkshire Post and many in Westminster have joined Dave in expressing concern about the character, business dealings and ability of a man once deemed the “rising star” of levelling up. Last week, their scepticism appeared vindicated when Michael Gove ordered a review into corruption allegations around one of the set pieces of post-Brexit Britain: the Teesworks development containing the country’s largest freeport.

Levelling up, like so many of the political visions of the last decade, appears to be dead. Once upon a time, before the ravages of inflation, pandemic and his own fall, Boris Johnson dreamt of a post-Brexit healing period driven by an era of high spending and devolution — a social transformation on the scale of the reunification of Germany. The rhetoric was always ambitious. But estimated costs ranged from £30 billion to £2 trillion — figures that never quite matched the Government’s own levelling-up budget of £11 billion, of which Labour claim 90% has not been spent, and from which seven in ten Conservative councillors say they have not seen any “tangible benefits”. And with this week’s revelation of another controversial “secret deal”, concerning Houchen and the transfer of public assets in Hartlepool, the events on Teesside now resemble a tragicomic final act for a British political era defined by exhausted ideas.

As in Nostromo, Joseph Conrad’s great saga of failed political idealism centring around a South American silver mine, the goal was to “bring this corner of the world into the new”. And Houchen’s vision is on a similar scale: to create a hub for global trade and the green energy revolution within one of Britain’s most neglected regions. In similarly Conradian fashion, the first sign of trouble on Teesside came in the form of epic metaphor. Two years ago, overnight like a biblical reckoning, a “Lobstercaust” of dead crustaceans washed up on its beaches. Immediately, this midden of rotting shell and claw was connected with Houchen’s project, rumoured to be the result of the poisonous chemical pyridine dredged up from the old steelworks. Concerns were waved away by Defra who judged the link “exceptionally unlikely”. Despite the portent, work on the site would go on.

The freeport, having replaced the second-largest blast furnace in Europe, is expected to make amends for decades of deindustrialisation, as well as provide up to 18,000 jobs. But further development on the old steelworks — now Europe’s largest brownfield site — has been suspiciously slow, and contains a toxic wasteland the size of Gibraltar. Until the £500 million clean-up costs are paid for, the development is worthless. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the deal that placed most of the site in the hands of two local businessmen — Chris Musgrave and Martin Corney — has become mired in controversy.

So far, they have made a profit of £45 million over the past three years, and there appears to be no evidence that they have invested back into the project. One green steel investor told the FT he had already walked away from the “amateur hour” project. And speak to enough people on Teesside and you can sense the frustration of a place seduced and betrayed by a decade of failed political visions. Brexit, on the terms of its chief visionaries, has failed. Levelling up has, too. Now the last outlet of hope gifted to the area in this strange era of failed politics is the freeport.

“People up here still love Boris,” insists Andy Hixon as he takes me on a tour around the construction site. The former Tory councillor was swept to power on Johnson mania until he lost his seat in the recent local elections. We drive past the surreal icons of Britain’s post-industrial landscape: a drive-thru Taco Bell, a Victorian clock tower that tells no one the time. Speaking to locals in the town, there are plenty of reasons to doubt his optimism. The Mayor Ben Houchen is a “provincial, parochial solicitor from Stockton” who is “completely out of his depth”. Or, as one man told me, he’s a “poundshop Trump” who has “delivered no jobs” and helped “swindle the people of Teesside”.

But Hixon, calm and measured, is the archetype of a new breed of Tory stoicism in the face of doom. The men he drinks with are back in much-needed work after the pandemic. The myth of Johnson — ice cream cone in hand, windswept tie — that once toured these parts persists because it was the antithesis to the old politics of anger that haunted Teesside and never seemed to get anything done. Beyond the legacy of Boris, Hixon agrees that it boils down to a matter of reimagining the area. “Everyone’s continuously reinventing themselves,” he says. He has retrained three times and now owns his own petrochemical business. Teesside must do the same, he thinks, and arguably it already is. Redcar College has opened a Clean Energy Education Hub. SeAH wind, a Korean wind farm manufacturer, will open a turbine factory in 2026. If you believe in the freeport, then in time the freeport might believe in you, too.

Beyond the old industrial skyline and back in the centre of Middlesbrough, there is the opportunity to test out this vision. Joe, a sound and lighting engineer sunning himself in a redbrick street, has been “more or less out of work since Covid”. When I mention Houchen’s vision he responds with a description of Sunak as “a clueless rich wanker”. He doesn’t have an opinion on Labour and he doesn’t know what a freeport is. He will not vote. It’s not hard to find others who share a similar sentiment. “Look at the high street,” sighs one jaded-looking woman when I ask her about levelling up. And what about the freeport? “I don’t know what that is.” Inside a pub blasting karaoke onto the empty high street, a former RAF engineer is similarly bemused. Rather than empty promises of regeneration, he speaks of a “train and get out” model for the “Teesside diaspora”.

In Steelies, a social club whose existence reaches back into Teesside’s industrial past, a decades-old resentment still lingers. Concerns about the freeport, corruption and the future of the town are dismissed as “bloody pointless”. Guinness in hand, one retired electrician says he’s still furious about a “useless and corrupt”’ Labour council who did nothing for the area. “At least Houchen is trying to get something done.”

When I repeat this to a local Labour activist, the man is dismissed as living in a “fantasy land”. But what will Labour do with this grumpy, unresolved energy once courted by the Tories? The answer seems to be: try to move beyond it. Canvassing in the wake of local election success, he claims freeport allegations have brought a national narrative about Tory sleaze and incompetence home to Teesside. Now, as the activist puts it, there is a coalition of voters that exists beyond the ghosts of Brexit and Johnson: people under-40, female voters, those who have realised they’ve been “conned by the last decade of Tory rule”. But a vision for Labour here isn’t clear either. They want to echo Blair with talk of a new teacher training college, and sound like Starmer with their “laser focus on building local businesses”. But beneath that, they too lament the loss of the Steelworks in 2015, and are disquieted by the knowledge that they will once more come to inherit the blank canvas of toxic land around the freeport.

Conrad never knew how to finish Nostromo. Having spun a tale wagered on the cruelty of political idealism, he drove his characters to madness or suicide. Despite all this, the silver mine endured as a paradoxical symbol of hope. On Teesside, I suspect the freeport will, too. If it can weather the storm of allegations, and the new age of Global Britain in an uncertain world, it may yet save the region from the malaise and resentment that come after betrayal. Or — more likely now, as the clouds of corruption and incompetence draw in — the freeport dream will fail, too. This is the outcome this part of the country has become accustomed to. As with Teesside over the last decade, so much has changed politically, yet also so little.