Boris Johnson may find that being ‘Brexity Hezza’ is not so simple | Andy Beckett | Opinion

For a prime minister who has already been in office seven months, leading a party that’s already been in power for 10 years, Boris Johnson has come a long way on promises alone. One of the most effective, so far, has been his pledge to “level up” Britain. For many voters and commentators, this egalitarian-sounding catchphrase signals a new Conservatism: one that cares about the whole country, rather than just the comfortable southern areas Tory governments usually favour. For more sceptical observers, the phrase is primarily tactical but clever: a way for the Tories to pretend to prioritise the pivotal seats in neglected parts of the north and Midlands that they gained in December, and to further disorient a Labour party still dizzy from defeat.

What approach to levelling up Britain’s starkly unequal regions – by many measures, among the most unequal of any rich country – might the Tories take? Shortly after becoming prime minister Johnson gave a clue. Last September he told several of his cabinet that he saw himself as “basically a Brexity Hezza”. Since the former Tory grandee Michael Heseltine was (and is) a prominent remainer – and is estranged from the party as a result – Johnson’s self-description felt cheeky and not entirely reliable, even by his standards. Yet it has been latched on to by Johnson-watchers ever since, as they’ve otherwise struggled to make sense of his simultaneously evasive and hyperactive premiership.

The Johnson-Heseltine comparison does make some sense. Both have always been political showmen: quotable Tory rogues with ostentatious haircuts who’ve never hidden their ambitions and ruthlessness. During the late 80s and early 90s, Heseltine undermined and ultimately destroyed Margaret Thatcher, as Johnson later did David Cameron and Theresa May. But before then, Heseltine was best known for a more appealing political role – one that Johnson now seems keen to imitate.

As Thatcher’s environment minister in the early 80s Heseltine sought to use central government to help revive Britain’s most rundown places through a pioneering combination of state and private-sector investment. His efforts were energetic, attracted enormous media attention and gained him a near-legendary status in parts of the country and the Conservative party – a status that has endured.

Yet the actual effects of his schemes were ambiguous: economically, socially and, above all, politically. Heseltine’s experience demonstrated that regeneration is difficult, especially in an old, frayed country such as Britain; and that, even when it succeeds to an extent, its consequences may not be the ones governments expect. Regenerating areas usually held by opposition parties is not the shortcut to electoral dominance it sometimes seems.

Michael Heseltine and Margaret Thatcher in Brighton in 1982

‘Yet like Johnson now, Thatcher needed to demonstrate quickly to voters that the national revival she’d promised was actually happening, so she gave Heseltine almost free rein.’ Michael Heseltine and Margaret Thatcher in Brighton in 1982. Photograph: Clive Limpkin / Daily Mail / Re

Heseltine did his best-known work in Liverpool and east London. When the Tories took power in 1979, these were “the two inner-city areas of greatest need”, according to his 1987 book, Where There’s a Will. Both had miles of derelict docks, populations that had been shrinking for decades and great difficulty attracting investment. Liverpool had also seen intense riots in 1981 – to the deep alarm of the government.

The Labour governments of the previous two decades had understood but largely failed to reverse this downward spiral – just like New Labour more recently in the “left behind” areas of the north and the Midlands. Hopes that a Tory government would do better – let alone one led by Thatcher – were not high.

Yet like Johnson now, Thatcher needed to demonstrate quickly to voters that the national revival she’d promised was actually happening, so she gave Heseltine almost free rein. He visited Liverpool constantly, listened carefully to local people, bullied Whitehall and business into providing funding for the city, and helped drive through showy regeneration projects, including the redevelopment of the Victorian Albert Dock complex, and an ambitious garden festival, featuring pagodas and a light railway, held on landscaped waste ground beside the Mersey in 1984.

Meanwhile in London, he established the Docklands Development Corporation, and used its almost unlimited powers to take over and clear the old quaysides for a new, white-collar business district. Canary Wharf was built there, the City of London expanded eastwards into it, and the whole British economy tilted further towards financial services.

The latter shift has been a mixed blessing, nationally. And so has Canary Wharf, locally. Despite an influx of bankers since the 80s, as both workers and residents, east London still has some of the capital’s poorest boroughs. Many of the jobs created in London Docklands have been for badly paid security guards and cleaners, tending office towers largely sealed off from the streets around them. Heseltine’s Liverpool legacy has been mixed, too. He was granted the freedom of the city in 2012 for his work. But its population continued to shrink for two decades after his initiatives, only beginning to recover in the 2000s. After 1984, the garden festival site fell back into dereliction, and much of the rest of the waterfront still awaits redevelopment. Liverpool today is a city of handsome new and restored buildings, but the overgrown spaces between them can still make its revival feel provisional.

Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands

‘Many of the jobs created in London Docklands have been for badly paid security guards and cleaners, tending office towers largely sealed off from the streets around them.’ Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

The political impact of Heseltine’s work was also uneven. The Conservative vote in Liverpool and east London did not increase – it fell. In 1983 the county of Merseyside had five Tory MPs, nearly a third of the total; since 1997 it has had either one or none. Similarly, north-east and south-east London had 18 Tory MPs in 1983; now there are eight. Voters in neglected places may use an election to tell politicians to pay their problems some attention, but once that’s happened, other election issues often come crowding back in.

Yet the Thatcher government did gain a more subtle, national benefit from its patchy regeneration programme – one that some Tories may have in mind now. Heseltine’s hi-vis social conscience softened the image of what was, in essence, a harsh government. When he started his work in Liverpool in 1981, the alliance between the Liberals and the newly founded SDP, which appealed strongly to voters who felt Thatcher was too extreme, was ahead of the Tories in the polls. But as the decade went on that challenge faded. A “levelling up” programme of public works by the Johnson government may similarly distract centrist voters from his authoritarian and deregulatory policies.

Either way, we shouldn’t get too carried away by all the Tory talk about the north. Even after December’s election, fewer than a fifth of their Commons seats are there. As usual, the majority of Tory MPs are from the south, with its unique and ancient concentration of Tory interest groups – the City of London, the most prosperous homeowners, the most famous private schools. The new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, may represent a northern constituency, but his CV – Winchester College, Oxford University, work in the City for a hedge fund and Goldman Sachs – is as southern as they come.

Countries with more equal regions, such as France and Germany, are not so dominated by a single rightwing party. Even if Johnson really is a “Hezza”, it’s hard to see the Conservatives treating the south like everywhere else.

Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist

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