Tom Richmond: Heseltine and Mandelson - Don't write off these big beasts as yesterday's men

THE late Graham Taylor, who died exactly a year ago, once made a very profound point when the Football Association was looking to recruit a new England manager.

Peter Mandelson is a former President of the Board of Trade.

Why, he wondered out loud on Radio 5 live, were none of the many previous holders of the post being considered? Taylor’s logic was that they would be more effective second time around because they’d know the pitfalls.

It’s equally applicable to politics, where experience is readily dismissed by those young upstarts who maintain, arrogantly, that they know best of all in spite of their innocence, inexperience and ineptitude. They don’t.

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Taylor’s approach – his punditry is still missed to this day – came to mind after Theresa May’s reshuffle coincided with two heavyweight speeches on industrial policy and devolution by Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson.

Michael Heseltine backs the Northern Powerhouse.

Lifelong rivals, these elder statesmen do, in fact, have much in common – devout EU enthusiasts, they both served as President of the Board of Trade and are both committed to the empowerment of the English regions.

Yet, rather than being written off as yesterday’s men because they are opposed to Brexit, these are two men who know what it will take to implement the Government’s new Industrial Strategy.

After all, the phrase ‘industrial strategy’ was still banned when Heseltine – the original driving force behind inner-city regeneration – took charge of trade policy a quarter of a century ago.

Now he wants every Whitehall department to have its own industrial strategy in place to maximise job opportunities – and for Ministers to accelerate devolution plans for those areas, like Yorkshire, that don’t have leadership structures in place.

Michael Heseltine backs the Northern Powerhouse.

Endorsed on social media by none other than George Osborne, I speculate that the former Chancellor – and Northern Powerhouse architect – would also be receptive to the ideas put forward by Mandelson in the same debate.

A supporter of Business Secretary Greg Clark, who survived the axe after Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt refused a job-swap, Mandelson noted that “progressive politics” should be about advancing the country’s long-term interests as he made three thoughtful points.

First, he said all Ministers must take ownership and responsibility of the Industrial Strategy – and not leave it to Clark’s department. “The Prime Minister needs to take some responsibility in driving this, otherwise it will not happen,” said Mandelson, who served in both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s cabinets.

Second, details will matter to avoid unintended consequences that put key businesses at a competitive disadvantage. “It requires painstaking, practical and detailed follow-up; that is when the real slog begins. Let us face it, most Ministers are not natural business people or entrepreneurs, so they must use actual hard evidence, not wishful thinking, in implementation,” he notes.

Third, Mandelson highlights the importance of continuity and the need to follow Germany and France’s example by developing “a genuinely long-term approach, one that will take us well beyond 2030”.

Noting the similarities between the Industrial Strategy White Paper and Labour’s alternative, he called for adversarial, zero-sum-game modern politics to be put to one side. “Frankly, we need to take any consensus where we can find it, however difficult Brexit makes that,” he added.

He’s right. Not only is Mandelson aware of the propensity of the Tories and Labour to start afresh whenever there is a change in power, but he also knows newly-appointed Ministers are under pressure to make their mark before they’re briefed against – or are in place for other reasons.

I’m sure Jake Berry only remained as Northern Powerhouse Minister because the Prime Minister doesn’t want him on manoeuvres running a leadership campaign on behalf of Boris Johnson. The same applies for others.

And, because of this, the Government – and Whitehall – is bereft of substantive leadership.

After all, the average age of the 600 civil servants in Brexit Secretary David Davis’s department is just 31 years. More than half of those appointed to seven Cabinet departments last week are new to the ministry in question and Esther McVey is the fifth Work and Pensions Secretary in less than two years. Even the most ineptly-run football teams, with the exception of Leeds United under Massimo Cellino, would struggle to match this churn.

For this reason, Britain will be all the poorer if the wisdom of Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson is ignored. I, for one, would have far more confidence in the new Industrial Strategy making a difference, and advancing the Northern Powerhouse after Theresa May declined to appoint a Cabinet-rank Minister, if this unlikely alliance was advising the Prime Minister and Business Secretary rather than many of the advisors currently in situ.

Just as Graham Taylor did in a footballing context, they know – from experience – which ideas, and individuals, should be kicked into touch at the first opportunity.