The man who ran Manchester
He's one of Britain’s most influential politicians this century, and yet most people have never heard of him. So who is Sir Richard Leese - and how did he lead a city for 25 years?
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By Joshi Herrmann
The news that a 16-year-old girl had been assaulted in Crumpsall began to spread just after teatime. By the late evening, Downing Street had been informed. An aide who had contacts in Number 10 was asked to make the call. “Gordon Brown was scheduled to be coming to Manchester the next day — he needed to know that Richard had been arrested,” the aide remembers.
It was the middle of April 2010, and that year’s general election was just three weeks away. When the prime minister was briefed that Sir Richard Leese, the most powerful Labour figure in the North, was in a police cell for striking his stepdaughter during a domestic dispute, Brown got involved.
“How are you going to resolve this, so we don’t have a story running nationally or locally about the Labour Party?” Brown asked senior figures in Manchester, according to three sources I spoke to for this story. Leese, then aged 58, had accepted a caution for the offence, which counts as an admission of guilt, telling officers that an argument about a pet had spun out of control. Brown seemed sceptical that Leese could carry on as leader, but a compromise was reached — he would temporarily step down from his role while he took care of his private life.
Leese hasn’t spoken about the incident since, or even at the time beyond a couple of perfunctory press statements. “I talked very little about it,” he says in a local café in Crumpsall, where we met in early November. I expect him to deflect the question, but he doesn’t.
“It was almost 24 hours I spent in Pendleton police station,” he says, describing it as the “worst time I have ever had in my life.” What was he thinking? “I thought life as I knew it may be over. And then, OK, I thought I’ll have to find something else to do.” He says he didn’t sleep that night. “I didn’t even know how my own children would react. Everything that you can imagine was going through my head.”
Leese says his family supported him after the incident, as did many of his colleagues. What he won’t talk about is the incident itself. “I was giving medicine to a cat, but I’m not going to say any more about it,” he told me. “I acknowledge that whatever the cause, that what I did was wrong. Full stop.” A month after stepping away from his role, Leese was back running Manchester.
By most measures, Leese is one of Britain’s most influential politicians this century, and yet most of the country doesn’t know who he is. His 25-year tenure running Manchester is one of the longest stints of office in global politics, and it’s hard to think of a leader in the Western world who has overseen more dramatic changes in a modern city than Leese. The physical transformation of Manchester since he was elected leader of Manchester City Council in 1996 sometimes makes me think of Robert Moses, the deeply controversial “master builder” of New York, who brutally remodelled a city and provokes intense debate to this day.
But who is Richard Leese, really?
“He’s terrifying,” says one former colleague. “He’s a very aggressive person — if you say good morning, he will argue the toss,” says a one-time press advisor. A counterpoint is offered by a fellow council leader in Greater Manchester, who claims “He’s a normal person. I found him easy to get on with.” “Very direct, no bullshit,” adds a fellow councillor. And an opponent asks: “Have you ever heard Sir Richard Leese say I made a mistake?”
“He brings a rigour to what he does,” says Andy Burnham, speaking just before going to Leese’s 400-person leaving do in late November, and describing his deputy mayor of Greater Manchester as “streetwise and clever”. “Richard will come at things from a sort of more forensic point of view, he will want to do the preparatory steps, the evidence base. We’ve had our moments, but we’ve had an ability to resolve them.”
“I always thought Richard was an incredibly practical, pragmatic, not particularly partisan person,” says George Osborne, who worked extensively with him on Greater Manchester’s devolution deal and says Leese unlocked a wave of similar agreements across the country. “Manchester was the absolute gateway to the elected mayors around England,” Osborne told me on the phone recently, “And Richard had the key to that gateway, because if he had said no, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Burnham jokes about “what you might call Richard’s sledgehammer wit.” Off the record, Leese’s former colleagues put things more bluntly. “He didn’t get where he is today because of his charm,” says someone who has known him for more than 20 years. At his massive leaving do last month, eyebrows were raised about Leese’s “mealy-mouthed” words for his successor Bev Craig, and his failure to mention his predecessor Graham Stringer, who was in the room. “He can be a charmless, almost graceless, person,” says the former colleague.
Which rather raises the question — how did Leese stay in power so long?
The glorious revolution
When the 27-year-old Leese arrived in Manchester on the second day of 1979 to take up a job as a community worker, there were several feet of snow on the ground. He lived in a bedsit in Crumpsall with his then-partner Michal, where the fuses blew when they put the heating on.
The pair had met as teachers in Coventry after Leese graduated from Warwick. She was an international socialist, but the man who would become her husband and the father of her children says he never flirted with the far-left, despite being an active trade unionist during his half decade as a maths teacher.
He was elected to the council during the “Glorious Revolution” in 1984, when the left wing of the city’s Labour party took power from the right. “We had a very old-fashioned, dormant Labour group run by a lot of older men,” says Pat Karney, Leese’s long-time ally on the council and the secretary of the city’s Labour group.
It was a tumultuous time in Mancunian politics, as a new generation of councillors promoted new ideas about anti-racism and LGBT rights that were sharply at odds with the old guard. “We had all come back from university,” Karney says, “We were the Young Turks”.
Leese wasn’t one of the loudest voices at the time, but he quickly shone as a councillor, taking on increasingly responsible roles as the council shifted to a stance of welcoming private sector involvement in the city’s regeneration. He didn’t possess the rhetorical gifts of some of his colleagues, but he was exceptionally good with numbers and quickly got his head around the council’s finances.
Leese took office as the leader of the council on the 20th of May 1996, and a few weeks later his colleagues saw a different side to him. In the middle of June, the IRA blew a massive hole in the city with the biggest bomb detonated in this country since the Second World War. The US president Bill Clinton called the attack a “brutal and cowardly act of terrorism” and several colleagues remember that at a Labour group meeting in the council chamber, Leese broke down in front of his comrades.
“That was the first time I saw him emotional in meetings,” says Kath Robinson, a former deputy council leader. “It was just anger. How dare these people bomb our city? What on earth do they think they are doing?” Former council chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein remembers Leese’s performance in meetings with cabinet ministers and the prime minister John Major in the days after the bomb, in which he had to make the case for government assistance. “He was magnificent,” Bernstein told me.
Leese quickly saw an opportunity to remodel the city centre via an ambitious international design competition, opening up the retail district and correcting some of the mistakes of post-war civic planning. It showed the ambition he had for his adopted home as a global rather than provincial city. It also showed how central the city centre was going to be in Manchester’s renaissance.
He will annihilate you
The job of council leader played to Leese’s strengths. Where cabinet ministers in Westminster spend a lot of time performing in public — giving interviews and appearing in the House of Commons — local authority leaders do most of their work in meetings behind closed doors. It’s a role that rewards quiet efficiency more than charm or verbal pyrotechnics. And behind closed doors, Leese is formidable.
“The thing that most strikes you about Richard is his intellect,” says someone who has sat in dozens of high-profile meetings with Leese since the 1990s. Leese is known to be a brilliant debater, owing in large part to his superior preparation. “He will have read the papers and got his head around it and will make a very hard point,” says the source, “And unless you have a very good counter argument, he will annihilate you.”
Robinson remembers Leese calling her on Sundays to plan the week ahead, and having to tell him she was spending time with her family. Karney recalls Leese taking budget reports on holiday, and says his work ethic and his ability to absorb information gave him a “lethal quality”.
“Debating is all about listening, not speaking,” Leese told me when we first met for this piece in September. Sitting around a meeting table in his office, he laid out the other secrets of his leadership style: reading every single report; remembering when you’ve asked people to do things; having “one hell of a memory”; and applying the problem-solving skills he learned at university. “I think a lot of that comes from pure mathematics and the way you start thinking,” he says. “If you do pure mathematics, you just think differently to most people.”
The problem he’s most proud of solving is the 2002 Commonwealth Games, which many well-placed observers confidently predicted were going to be a disaster. “Why Manchester may rue the day it won the Commonwealth Games” was the headline of a story in the Guardian in 2001, reporting a huge gap in funding. With a year to go, organisers didn’t have the money to pull off the Games, and it was “nerve-wracking” inside the council according to a senior figure.
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Burnham, not yet an MP, remembers Leese and Bernstein coming down to London to lobby for funding, sensing that the government wasn’t taking Manchester 2002 seriously. It was his first dealings with Leese — a relationship that would become vital, but not always warm — later on. “They [Leese and Bernstein] were always on top of the detail,” says Burnham, who was then an aide to a Labour minister at the time. “But always with this sort of streetwise, clever approach that was about ‘How we are going to deliver the government’s objectives for you.’”
(When Burnham became mayor and Leese agreed to be his deputy, the two men sometimes clashed. “We’ve had our moments,” says the mayor. “He would say I was bringing Westminster ways and was announcing things without taking people through and getting the sign off needed. So there was a bit of culture clash I guess, and a bit of clash of priorities. Things were always resolved through discussion.”)
In the end, Leese knitted together the funding required and the public embraced the Games enthusiastically. The event’s success paved the way for the regeneration of east Manchester, with Leese’s beloved Manchester City at the heart of it, but it also cemented the city’s new-found credibility in the eyes of the government and the business community. “It proved we could deliver successfully,” says Claire Nangle, a senior councillor who worked closely with Leese at the time. “It proved that the city council was capable, and capable of doing big things.”
In the run-up to the Games, the city also saw a steelier side to Leese. The newspapers were full of stories about rampant lawlessness in Manchester, and the Times reported that “like Chicago in the 1920s it is in the grip of gangsters”. A series of “Good Samaritan” murders, in which people who tried to break up fights were killed, were hurting the city’s reputation. Such was the perceived criminality that it was considered newsworthy when the Coronation Street star Angela Griffin had to walk home through the city centre after a party, “because her TV actor boyfriend was too mean to pay for a taxi,” as one tabloid newspaper put it.
The council leader met with David Wilmot, the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, and unleashed his fury. “I thought it would be a good idea if he went out and caught some criminals,” Leese says now. “He [Wilmot] started babbling on about human rights.” Leese admits he was “strong” with Wilmot, “probably quite aggressive really.” Around the same time, a letter to the chief constable leaked to the press in which the council leader described “a crisis that your officers seem either unwilling or unable to address”. He had shown voters a side of himself that many liked — as a no-nonsense hard man.
Leese comes from a no-nonsense background. He spent the first two years of his life in a pit house in Kirkby-in-Ashfield, a rapidly declining mining town in the Nottinghamshire coalfield. The young Leese, his brother, his parents and his grandparents on his mother’s side shared two bedrooms.
The family moved around the area a few times — his mother doing a variety of clerical jobs and his father working as a production engineer. Even though Nottinghamshire is technically in the Midlands, “We were brought up considering ourselves northerners,” Leese says.
Leese was good at football and cross country. In the classroom, he was best at maths, which he went on to study at the University of Warwick at the end of the 1960s. But his biggest discovery at school was that he was extremely good at chess. The school’s chess club met in the physics lab, and Leese soon realised he could beat much older players. Age 16, he began playing “Board 2” for the county adult team and then he was invited to train with the England Under 18 squad, which he declined.
He had a good relationship with his mother, but not so much with his father, who was demanding and emotionally unavailable. “He wasn’t a happy person,” Leese told me when we met for the first time on the day he stepped down as council leader. “He drank too much and he was a womaniser.” When Leese was 15, his father walked out. By that point the car had been repossessed, the house had been repossessed and the family was left in dire straits. “He pretty much left us destitute,” Leese says.
How did his relationship with his father affect him? “I think it probably made me a lot more resilient,” he says. “And probably a little bit insular as well. Self-defensive, if you like.”
Middle class tosspots
In September this year, Burnham held a reception for local journalists in the building where he has his offices. As reporters milled around the drinks table, I got talking to Leese, who had recently announced his decision to step down as leader of the council. A BBC journalist who was standing with us started probing Leese a bit. Should he have forced developers to build more affordable housing? Did he think his opponents on the left — including the very vocal campaign group Greater Manchester Housing Action — had a point when they criticised the council for giving away public land too cheaply?
Leese was getting visibly irritated, criticising his opponents for not living in the real world. Then, as Burnham approached the microphone to speak, Leese delivered his coup de grâce. “They’re middle class tosspots and I hate them.”
Middle class tosspots. I hate them. It was a flash of something I hadn’t seen from Leese: raw anger; utter derision. “I don’t think Richard enjoyed scrutiny at all,” says Jim Battle, one of Leese’s many deputy leaders. “I think he felt it was a process where he presented facts and if we disagreed there was something wrong with us.” Battle portrays Leese as a loner who dedicated his whole life to his job — working all weekend and making sure he always had more information at his disposal than anyone else. As a result, “He would always seem to have the better argument.”
The next time I saw him, when we met in Crumpsall, I asked him about it. “I don’t hate them,” he told me. “We use the word hate in the sense of strongly dislike. Because I and my comrades in the Labour group spend our time doing what we believe is right to make Manchester a better place. They spend all their time trying to undermine what we are doing.”
This is a theme you hear a lot from people close to Leese — we the Labour group are acting in the interests of the people; they, the middle class left-wing activists, are seeking to undermine us. It’s central to the political culture Leese and his allies have created, one where all dissent is supposed to happen within the closed-door meetings of the Labour group, and none of it spills out in the public council meetings, where almost every single member is now a Labour councillor. “There was a kind of omerta about thinking about how the city was run,” says a former advisor to Leese. “They want to keep these things internal,” says one councillor. “This stuff doesn’t go out into the public domain very much, because these are supposed to be private meetings. It’s fairly top-down, heavy-handed control.”
When I asked Pat Karney, the secretary of the Labour group, about a recent letter from a departing Labour councillor called Marcia Hutchinson, in which she had accused the group of enforcing a culture of fear via the councillors who are appointed by the group as “whips”, he started answering like a Soviet press officer. “For 30 odd years, I do not comment on internal Labour group affairs, and I would never comment.” For Karney, there’s too much focus on Leese as “some kind of municipal messiah,” and not enough on the strength of the party’s machine in the city. “We are the most successful Labour group in the country, the largest in the country, because we are not besotted with internal debates. We are focused on the needs of residents.”
I tell Isaac Rose from Greater Manchester Housing Action about the “middle class tosspots” comment, given that Leese was talking about Rose and his fellow housing activists. He laughs and says he doesn’t mind the personal insult. In Rose’s mind, Leese’s obstinacy and discomfort with opposition and open debate has led to bad policymaking. He says the council has continued to pursue its strategy of trying to entice property investors at any cost — a policy that might have been appropriate in the ’80s, ’90s and noughties — even though Manchester is now very attractive to private capital.
For Rose, the generous deal with Abu Dhabi to build New Islington is the clearest illustration of that failure. In the past decade there’s been “a window of opportunity to build a different kind of Manchester,” he says. “A more interventionist city council would have sought to capture more of that value for the city, whereas it’s felt like the council has been very hands off and just let the market deliver what it wants.”
In 2004, a story in the Evening News reported that Manchester had come third in a “government blacklist” of the most deprived areas in the country, based on a relatively new measure called the indices of multiple deprivation. Leese responded to the findings by saying that the council was targeting the right areas, in the east and north of the city, but that it would take some time before the results showed up. “In the next two years we want to see a big change — the ambition is to get out of the top 10.”
But that hasn’t happened. The night before I met Leese for the second time, I looked up the indices of multiple deprivation from 1998, soon after he became leader, and the one from 2019. Manchester was ranked sixth then, and sixth now. The figures show a dramatic improvement in the city when it comes to jobs — there are vastly more people living and working in Manchester than there were in the 90s thanks to a much stronger economy, which is the signature achievement of Leese’s reign. But the number of workless households is pretty similar to when he took over, and the indices suggest that the staggering growth of the city centre hasn’t made life much better in some of our poorest estates.
“We have some deep-rooted residual problems,” concedes Leese, after I read out the numbers and push him a few times. “They are really, really difficult.” He points to unemployment in the over-50s, more than a quarter of whom are on worklessness benefits. “If you look at when those people were born, brought up, they are Thatcher’s children,” he says. “We still have serious legacy issues to work through.”
He points out — quite reasonably — that councils have had their budgets dramatically stripped back, and that the coalition’s austerity programme reversed some local progress in fighting poverty. Leese’s clever restructuring of Manchester Airport gave the city tens of millions in extra annual income to alleviate the impact of government cuts, but he knows that the persistence of very serious deprivation is a blot on his record, alongside his 2010 arrest and his defeat in the 2008 congestion charge referendum. “If we had not re-built the economy of this city, it would have been a dead city,” he says.
George Osborne comes to his defence. “When I was growing up, Manchester, like other great industrial cities of our past, was in real decline,” he told me. “Now Manchester is buzzing — it’s one of the most exciting cities in Europe.” So does his former colleague Claire Nangle, who thinks Leese’s critics have forgotten the bad old days. “There is just no sense of what it was like, there’s just no understanding,” she told me. “It was bloody awful. Things were really bad. And now they’re not — they are getting better. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s immeasurably better.”
Leese may be the man who changed the skyline of Manchester, but he lives miles away from the skyscrapers that now dominate the city centre. After our second interview, he drives me around Crumpsall and points out the bedsit where he lived with his first wife Michal, and another house he moved to with his second wife Joanne. Then we reach his home now, an utterly unremarkable inter-war semi with roses growing in front of it. “It’s a small house, it’s a very ordinary house actually,” he says as we drive past.
The big buildings in the city centre are what people most associate with him, but he seems proudest of the dozens of new primary schools that have been built in unglamorous neighbourhoods like Crumpsall (“And all of them are now two-storey buildings rather than sprawling single-storey buildings, which is something I introduced,” he says). The rain is beating down, but he says he wants to show me something. He stops the car at the end of a cul-de-sac and leads me up a path into a wooded area. I assume the path is leading to something, but he stops and points to the hand rails along the side. I look around and then look at him.
“We used our local grant scheme to put this kick rail in and then they did planting behind it,” he says, referring to a local community group that got the paths re-done. This was just a dump really. They planted hundreds of thousands of bulbs and turned this into a really, really nice area to walk around.”
For a moment, I’m taken aback by the pride he takes in something so small; so mundane. I’ve spent weeks talking to people like Andy Burnham and George Osborne about the influence he’s had over politics not just in Manchester but across the country, and here we are under an umbrella on a stony footpath. Maybe it’s an attempt to highlight a policy — the local grant scheme — that shows he has distributed power to communities; that he isn’t a control freak; that he hasn’t hoarded power.
But really, down this cul de sac in Crumpsall is the closest you can get to the base metals of Richard Leese: low-key; obsessed with details; slightly dull; utterly focused on the local. “This is the world I live in,” he says as we drive away. “It’s my home.”
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📻 In our latest podcast, Joshi talks about what it was like interviewing and profiling Sir Richard Leese. Listen on your favourite podcast app by clicking here or using the Spotify player below.