Something had to be done about Liverpool as riots continued in the summer of 1981 and it was Environment Minister Michael Heseltine who became de facto Minister for Merseyside. Making a beeline for the city, his arrival was greeted with warmth from allies, curiosity and derision from enemies.
A group of children at the Toxteth Methodist Centre having an evening of socialising were rather bemused when a four car cavalcade drew up and in to their midst strode the six foot three former guardsman, publishing millionaire and cabinet minister – Michael Heseltine. Expecting to be rejected by the youth, according to contemporary accounts, he was in fact inundated with their grievances and for their part, the youth seemed rather overawed by this visitation from Westminster. Heseltine’s possibly studied informality disarmed critics like black youth leader Joe Brown.
“The kids told me he was a very genuine guy and that he was really concerned and listened to them, listened really hard. They liked him.”
But the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, formed to demand the release of those arrested, was in a far less accommodating mood. On the 20th July, they stormed out of a meeting at the YMCA though 48 hours later, requested another encounter with the minister. It was difficult to ignore the Cabinet member on their turf.
Heseltine behaved like a man on a mission who was learning on the job. One of his aides told a reporter that the whole experience was changing him profoundly.
“He’d had one hell of an eye opener this week. I doubt if he had any idea what deprivation and appalling conditions can really be like in a city like this. It’s been one hell of a jolt to his mind.”
Visiting a housing estate in the mainly white working class district of Croxteth, which some statistics suggested had a higher jobless rate than Toxteth, Heseltine was overhead having a rather surreal exchange with a local woman. She turned to the figure before her.
“Where do you live?”
Heseltine replied: “Somewhere rather nice near London.”
His 400 acre estate near Banbury in Oxfordshire was calculated to be half the size of Toxteth. On that Friday, 24th July, he took time out from Liverpool to attend the 18th birthday of his daughter Annabel at their home, Thenford Manor. The gossip columns reported that the minister spent £20,000 on the party, a fact that unfortunately for him did not go unreported in Liverpool.
The housing charity Shelter stuck the boot in with a scathing editorial in its magazine, Roof. “There has been something ludicrous in Mr Heseltine’s professions of concern about the problems he has seen on Merseyside, when it was he who savaged the Housing Investment Programme and re-calculated the Rate Support Grant to favour the shire counties at the expense of the inner cities.”