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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 20:55 GMT
Boris boosts Liverpool culture
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

"My long penitentiary pilgrimage is not yet over."

Boris Johnson and Michael Howard
Boris meets a fellow lover of Liverpool

Boris Johnson is rapidly making a career of trying to be nice to Liverpool.

The Conservative MP was last year ordered to the city to apologise in person after the magazine he edits accused it of "wallowing" in its victimhood.

Now he has been rubbing shoulders with Liverpool's great and good at the launch of a cross-party campaign in London to promote the city's status as the 2008 European Capital of Culture.

"It was a very exciting day, full of incident, action and colour," said Mr Johnson of his Liverpool trip.

"Everyone was charming and friendly except the media, although they had their job to do."


But the Liverpudlians I met on the trip had few kind words for the Henley MP.

One 17-year-old student could barely contain her indignation on learning Mr Johnson was, at that time, the Conservatives' culture spokesman.

"How did he get that job?," she said, "Did they flip a coin? My two-year-old cousin could do better."

The local evening paper mocked up a picture of Mr Johnson with a red nose, asking "who's this clown?" - a feeling that still persists in the city, according to local journalists I spoke to on Thursday.

But as the canapés circulated on the Commons terrace, Mr Johnson seemed oblivious to such jibes.

'Serious point'

He had nothing but praise for Liverpudlians, lauding their "fantastic spirit", and insisting, in an eye-watering Shakespearean pun, that "the quality of Mersey is not strained".

Drummond Bone and Cilla Black
Cilla added a touch of glamour

It was "highly likely" that he would want to visit the city again, he added.

Mr Johnson was invited to join the cross-party group by its chair, Labour MP for Knowsley North & Sefton East George Howarth, who insisted there was a "serious point" to his involvement, beyond being a magnet for publicity.

"Boris may have felt he was unwise in some of the things he said and now he is making up for it," he said.

The event also saw Mr Johnson reunited with outgoing Tory leader Michael Howard, the man who sent Mr Johnson to Liverpool in the first place - and then fired him as junior culture spokesman a few weeks later.


The pair got on famously, competing with each other to see who could come up with the best Liverpool-boosting slogans.

What about a joint pilgrimage to their favourite city?

"I would travel anywhere with Boris. I am not sure Boris would travel anywhere with me," declared a beaming Mr Howard, who was in a decidedly demob happy mood ("only five more days to go!").

Mr Howard has been a fan of Liverpool football club since he was small and made two unsuccessful attempts to become an MP in the city in the 1960s.

Asked what it was he loved about the place, Mr Howard said: "If you go into a lift in London and there are some other people in the lift, by the time you get out no one will have said a word to each other.

"If you get into a lift in Liverpool you are almost guaranteed to come out laughing."

'Great strides'

He said he would do anything - within reason - to help the Capital of Culture cause.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy have also given it their backing.

The 2008 festival is already big news on Merseyside but the organisers are keen to promote it is a national and international event.

They also want to make sure it gets a fair shout in the corridors of power - hence the launch of the cross-party group.

Such a move would scarcely have been possible 20 years ago, reflected the event's sponsor Lord Owen, when Liverpool was riven by political divisions and "real ill feeling".

But the former foreign secretary, who is chancellor of Liverpool University, said the city had made great strides since then and he hoped 2008 would do for it what the Commonwealth Games did for Manchester.

Cherie Blair

He also praised Liverpool's "dignified and mature" response to the "terrible murder" of black teenager Anthony Walker.

Capital of Culture organisers are keen for the event to showcase Liverpool's ethnic diversity - and the fact that it is open to all, not just the metropolitan elite.

So instead of the Bootleg Beatles - who entertained guests at the Brussels launch with Cherie Blair on guest vocals - the Westminster crowd were treated to a performance by rap trio Phase Two and a local community choir.

But this being Liverpool there had to be a hint of old-time showbusiness glamour.

And, sure enough, just as I was leaving, Cilla Black swept into the Palace of Westminster, too late, sadly, to bump into Boris, who had left early pursued by a BBC film crew.

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