A year on from his sacking by the Prime Minister and a month ahead of Yorkshire’s first mayoral election, one of the biggest Conservative beasts of them all, Lord Heseltine, throws his weight behind One Yorkshire. Arj Singh reports.
Once a rebel always a rebel, Lord Heseltine was unceremoniously sacked by Theresa May more than a year ago in a row over Brexit.
But while that argument rumbles on, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister lost one of her best advisers on devolution and rebalancing the economy away from London.
The former deputy PM’s towering reputation on regional growth was forged with his work in Liverpool following the Toxteth riots in 1981.
And it is still evident today as the 85 year-old reads aloud a complaining letter from one Leeds opponent of Yorkshire-wide devolution at the beginning of this meeting.
But “Tarzan”, nicknamed thanks to his flowing mane - still intact - and for swinging the mace in Parliament, is clear in his disagreement as he offers his unequivocal backing for ‘One Yorkshire’ with one mayor, arguing it would put the county on the global stage.
This is an opportunity for the North to exercise power over more of the critical decisions that affects its wellbeing.Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine
The combative Conservative peer, who famously led a botched attempt to oust Margaret Thatcher four years after quitting her cabinet in the Westland affair, says: “I don’t come from Yorkshire although a lot of Heseltines do as a matter of fact - but I hope as an outsider with the best of local sympathies, the brand I think could set the world alight is Yorkshire.
“All over the world it’s self evident to me there are people who have the greatest affection and sympathy for that remarkable county.
“So drawing together its strengths, and obviously this includes the strengths of the great cities that are components, is moving into a world competitive opportunity.”
Yorkshire-wide devolution with money and powers flowing to the county would open up “a new horizon” for its businesses, universities and other “world class organisations”.
“But it’s much more about releasing the energies of local people in a context which is world relevant, I think it’s been extremely exciting to see the way that Greater Manchester, Greater Liverpool, West Midlands, are now building on their collective strengths.”
The mention of Manchester, with its mayor Andy Burnham, is inevitable in any discussion about devolution as a painful example of how the old enemy over the Pennines has succeeded while Yorkshire fails to find unanimous agreement to get a deal.
But now 18 out of 20 of the county’s councils have come together under the One Yorkshire banner, Lord Heseltine urges Sheffield and Rotherham to get on board to stop giving Westminster an excuse to hoard power and money.
“West of the Pennines we’ve made dramatic progress, east of the Pennines we’ve not made progress at all, and that is for me depressing.
“It is about the inability of councils and councillors to agree to share a wider vision, and from a central government point of view, where there are many forces at work against devolution, the inability of councils and councillors to agree is a powerful argument against devolution.
“If they can’t even agree when someone is offering them something and not taking anything away, what faith, confidence can we have?”
But the peer, always keen to tackle seemingly intractable problems as he did in Merseyside, admitted he had some sympathy with the two councils.
“It’s all about the human nature of ‘what I have I hold’.
“I’ve always said I can merge any two companies in 24 hours if one of the chairmen will stand down.”
Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid has suggested he may only back a deal if all 20 councils are on board but Lord Heseltine urged him to actively work to persuade the two outstanding authorities to drop their opposition.
“It is in the national interest in my view to achieve a resolution to this exciting opportunity and the job of government is to facilitate that.
“But it’s more profound than that because there’s a very considerable feeling that the North has been left behind, well here’s an opportunity for the North to catch up and to fire on all cylinders.
“This is an opportunity for the North to exercise power over more of the critical decisions that affects its wellbeing.
“So it’s economically right but it’s much more than that - it is socially, culturally and politically right.”
Lord Heseltine’s assertion that Yorkshire will matter less than its rivals across the North should give a jolt to the county’s famously proud residents, including the letter writer from Leeds.
“One thinks of athletes at the starting point of a race - all attention focuses on the people who win or come second or third.
“Those who come at the back of the pack, they don’t die, they don’t disappear, they just don’t matter so much, that’s what we’re talking about.
“It’s not going over a cliff edge, it’s just falling behind, it’s just missing the boat, if I mix my metaphors.
“I can just feel the strength of that claim - ‘I come to represent Yorkshire’.
“I can just see the reaction from all sorts of people who were born there, whose parents were born there, who’ve got relationships of some sort there, and who might feel that spark of - ‘yeah, this is what I believe in’.”
Brexit ‘saps energy of ministers’
The Conservative Party has lost focus in its drive for devolution as it is so consumed by Brexit, Lord Heseltine says.
The peer echoed concerns that the Government’s time and energy is only focused on exiting the EU.
“I think the devolution agenda has lost momentum, I would personally like to see much wider pressure.
“But there are big issues which are simply not being pursued with the energy I believe necesasary - this would apply to education, to the devolution of skills, to the housing market.
“Because the whole focus is on trying to save the best deal that we can get and each day that goes by more (problems) emerge.”