In 2014, Max Caller was sent as a commissioner into Tower Hamlets. The council did not regain control of borough until 2017. In 2018, he was appointed to head an investigation into Northamptonshire. Next year, that county council will be abolished. Caller has now been sent to Liverpool.
Yesterday, Robert Jenrick announced that Caller has been appointed “to carry out an inspection of the authority’s compliance with its best value duty”.
The Communities Secretary said in his statement that “it is a matter of public record that Merseyside Police have for many months been conducting an investigation which has resulted in a number of arrests made on suspicion of fraud, bribery, corruption and misconduct in public office”.
Although “the council has taken significant steps to improve governance and assurances processes within the council”, Caller has nonetheless been appointed ” to support the council to continue to strengthen its governance, and deliver services for the people of the city… given the seriousness of the issues identified through the police investigation”.
“The matters to be covered by the inspection will be the authority’s planning, highways, regeneration and property management functions and the strength of associated audit and governance arrangements”.
Caller will report his findings to Jenrick by the end of March, at which point the latter will decide whether Liverpool is in breach of that best value duty. If he concludes that it is, he can then run the council himself (or rather the bits of it covered by Caller’s review), or else appoint someone else to do so.
Guess who that might be? One source says that “you can see the direction of travel”, and talks of “a once in a generation opportunity to fix Liverpool’s broken political culture”. Joe Anderson, the Mayor of Liverpool has stood down after he was arrested in relation to allegations of bribery and witness intimidation linked to building deals in the city.
Anderson has been suspended from the Labour Party, and says that “I believe time will make it clear that I have no case to answer”. He is currently on police bail.
The recent history of the Conservatives and Liverpool has been relatively benign – with the city at the front of the queue to pilot both Dominic Cummings’ “moonshoot” tests and a scheme to reduce self-isolation. Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson have contrasted the former Mayor’s co-operative stance with Andy Burnham’s confrontational one in Manchester.
“In Liverpool, the mayor Joe Anderson and Steve Rotheram both did a great job,” enthused Hancock last month. (Rotheram is the Mayor of Liverpool City Region.) Anderson was sensitive to any hint of divide and rule, replying that the Health Secretary’s compliment was like “a viper showing its teeth to you” – though its worth pointing out that, with Greg Clark, he once pioneered the very first City Deal.
Less recent history, as our readers will know, is less favourable. Think the Toxteth riots, Derek Hatton, Hillsborough, The Sun…and Johnson’s Spectator editorial (after which Michael Howard sent Johnson, then a member of his front bench, to Liverpool to apologise.)
It claimed that Liverpudians wallow in victimhood. Johnson didn’t write the article himself, though he was Spectator editor at the time. The Sun had no formal connection to the Conservative Party, but its then editor, Kelvin Mackenzie, was an enthusiastic supporter of Margaret Thatcher.
Then again, there is always Michael Heseltine – author of the famous paper “It took a riot”, which championed Government-driven regeneration – a cause he was to spearhead himself as “Minister for Merseyside”. Heseltine, deeply involved in the regeneration of the Albert Dock and the creation of the Garden Festival site, is now a freeman of the City of Liverpool.
Indeed, the Conservatives won 80 per cent of the vote in the city within living memory. “Did you know the TORIES once ran Liverpool?” the Liverpool Echo asked its readers last year.
Its piece quoted David Jeffrey, who has explained on this site that the rot for the Party set in not under Margaret Thatcher, but under Ted Heath, and during the later 1970s. Why? Because the old Protestant Tory working-class vote died out, and the Liberals mopped up the non-Labour vote, pioneering pavement politics in the city.
During the 1960s, Liverpool had seemed to be on the rise, boasting the Beatles, the beat poets, and two League title wins for both the city’s main football teams. But the traditional economy of the city was more vulnerable than it looked, and the mass unemployment of the 1980s killed any lingering Tory prospects off.
The Liverpool effect has gradually seeped out over the rest of Merseyside, with economics taking a back seat to culture. Sefton Central has some of the highest home-ownership rates in the country…and a Labour majority of over 15,000. During the last election campaign, Liverpool fans held up a banner declaring the old Tony Blair and newer Jeremy Corbyn slogan: “For the many, not the few”.
The city was also resistant to Brexit, with a 58 per cent vote for Remain. And there’s no reason to think that, were the city’s political culture to change, the Tories would be a beneficiary. But there is one force against which it may be powerless, Namely, the man who ran Tower Hamlets, presaged Northamptonshire’s end, and formerly chaired the Local Government Boundary Commission: Max Caller.