IS SH*THOLEGATE important? After all, it was just one of many pieces of meaningless abuse hurled around in the hurly burly of Prime Minister’s Questions. In the knockabout game that is British politics, Home Secretary James Cleverly, after 24 hours thought, denied that he aimed the abuse at Stockton itself but claimed he’d flung it at the town’s Labour MP, Alex Cunningham.

It has to be said that the audio evidence does not support Mr Cleverly’s version of the expletive-filled volley.

But it is important for a number of reasons.

It has damaged the Tees Valley’s reputation. As Ben Houchen said, it has dragged the region through the mud. Investors aren’t going to be flying up to Teesside airport if a senior member of the Government has such a foul view of the place.

The Northern Echo: Stockton Sparkles Launch .Picture by Dawn McNamara 23/11/23.Thousands of people in Stockton High Street for the launch of Stockton Sparkles in the week the Home Secretary labelled either the town or its MP a sh**hole

And it is unfair. In the week of the launch of Stockton Sparkles, a huge celebration of Christmas in the town, newspaper articles and radio programmes asked is Stockton sh*t? I took part in one programme that was recorded in a busy, but chilly, high street last Saturday, with long queues for the Ferris wheel. All around was evidence of how Stockton is pioneering the fight against the decline afflicting most town centres across the country. It has swept away an unloved 1970s concrete shopping centre and is extravagantly trying to reconnect the centre, via a grassy urban park built over a dual carriageway, to its principal feature of the River Tees.

That’s not to say Stockton doesn’t have profound problems. The central council ward has the lowest life expectancy for women in the country. Mr Cunningham’s question to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was about why 34 per cent of children in his Stockton North constituency grow up in poverty.

The Home Secretary chose to dismiss that question with foul language without being clever enough to realise that it goes to the heart of the Government’s record. Levelling up had to mean more than splashing cash on cleaning up Teesworks or transporting Treasury jobs out of London: it had to get into the heart of left behind communities and work out why life expectancy was lower in the north than in the south, why there is such a disparity been a place like Stockton and Mr Cleverly’s Braintree constituency – which also has its problems – where the child poverty rate is 23 per cent.

The question asked how that work was coming along.

The response to the question – for which Mr Cleverly has received no public sanction from the Prime Minister – takes us deeper still.

Mr Houchen was surprisingly elected in the Tees Valley in 2017 by promising to make the region fly. Literally. Labour talked of trying to get buses working but Mr Houchen promised that, after years of decline, he’d make the airport take off again so it would become a trailblazer for the region.

Voters responded positively to that positivity, which, along with Brexit, became the hallmark of Boris Johnson’s campaign in 2019. Mr Johnson touched the Tees Valley and County Durham in a way that no other Conservative leader had ever moved it before.

The best example was the Hartlepool by-election in 2021 when Mr Johnson was at the peak of his powers. Labour’s campaign was about how poor the town's public services, hospital and town centre were, whereas Mr Johnson’s message was that it wasn’t a bad place and with a fair crack of the funding whip – levelling up – he’d make it fly so that to get on no one would have to go far from the place they loved.

Today, that upbeat positivity, that boosterism, has been replaced by a downbeat sh*tshow. The Home Secretary's comment riled, even angered, everyone I spoke to last Saturday with one proud Stocktonian saying that to hear his town traduced in this way had taken him to the verge of tears.

It may only be a small, off-the-cuff word, but it could have a big impact when these red wall voters decide in the next 12 months whether they still have faith in the Conservatives.