ichael Heseltine is one of the rising stars of British Conservati

Michael Heseltine is one of the rising stars of British Conservative politics, a glamorous, dynamic member of the Thatcher Cabinet as minister for the environment. He has the cool self-assurance of a man accustomed to success, even when egg is splattered on his suitcoat, as it was a few weeks back in Liverpool.

Heseltine is the government's chief envoy to Merseyside, this region of industrial, commercial and social decay, probably the most seriously troubled in England.

"The tide of history is flowing downhill and with gathering momentum," Heseltine observed last spring in assessing Liverpool's prospects. "Maybe that is the way it has to be."

But maybe not.

In the year since rioting raged in Liverpool's inner city, focusing official attention on the economic and social problems here, Heseltine has become the central figure in what the government clearly believes is a major salvage operation. Last fall he spent three weeks in the area, and he has made weekly visits since.

The egg-throwing incident came in July, when he visited a school scheduled for closure over strong local protests. For an outsider such as Heseltine to take on Liverpool's burdens, one newspaper commented, meant "running the gantlet" of rising local frustration and anger.

Since October, he has directed a task force of bureaucrats and private sector managers determined to get a hold on the crisis.

Officials defensive about charges that not much has been done beyond the planting of thousands of trees along inner city streets produce a list of 18 different initiatives by the task force and local politicians. These include job-training programs, housing refurbishment and benefits to new businesses. All are aimed at attracting private investment, which Tories such as Heseltine believe is the key to economic revival.

Success will not be achieved overnight, he contends, adding "there is no pot of gold. No instant solution." Decline in Liverpool has been under way for decades, he said the other day. Only collaboration among all parts of the community -- banks and insurance companies, the remaining profitable manufacturers such as British-American Tobacco and Ford, local leaders and the public, can eventually turn matters around.

As for the controversial trees, Heseltine declared: "Why should not Liverpool look as good as so many of the other great cities of the world? Who will choose to come and live here, work here, invest here until it does?"

The most ambitious single project actually began before the riots. It is for the reclamation and restoration of an 800-acre site that is the largely abandoned southern portion of Liverpool's once thriving docks. By 1985, nearly $200 million of government funds will have been spent on turning the area into parks, shops, museums and sites for scores of small businesses. The plan is similar, but far bigger, than Baltimore's successful Harbor Place and Quincy Market in Boston, according to its executive director, Basil Bean.

With the city in a deep and continuing depression, Bean's optimistic scenario for a gala garden festival on the river bank and the finish of a transatlantic tall ships race, both in 1984, seems out of phase with present conditions. But he, Heseltine and other officials, believe that Liverpool needs to "create a climate of confidence . . . to get investors thinking of the city differently."

Government funds should merely provide the "leverage," Bean said, to attract private capital worth many times more, especially in terms of long-range job opportunities. With its days as a major port and industrial center apparently over, Liverpool has to find a "new historic rationale" for survival, said Eric Sorensen, a civil servant who is the task force director.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who argue that with crippling unemployment, disastrous housing and civil disorder, Liverpool cannot wait for private enterprise to do the job.

Tony Mulhearn, a printer by trade, is the Labor Party's candidate for Parliament at the country's next general election from the district that includes Liverpool Eight, scene of last summer's worst riots. He dismisses "garden festivals" as "white elephants" that offer no prospect of jobs. So far the dock reclamation plan has provided little employment, he said, and officials concede that he is right.

The solution, said Mulhearn, "is massive investment by government in housing, hospitals, roads." With this injection of public capital, tens of thousands of unemployed workers, including many of the unskilled young, could get a fresh start, he said, leading to a wholesale "retooling" of the region.

The tight fiscal policies of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Mulhearn and others who share his views insist, actually worsen the problem, forcing many companies out of business and cutting into grants for local government. At the moment the Liverpool City Council, the city's largest employer, has left 300 jobs vacant because of cuts in government support.

A third perspective comes from local businessmen interested in taking advantage of tax breaks and other government incentives but finding that it is often harder than it sounds to do so. Ted Spencer, a life-long "Scouse" as Liverpudlians call themselves, is a developer and builder.

Spencer recently purchased the lease on an enormous complex of factory buildings abandoned by British-Leyland, the struggling state-owned auto firm. The plant adjoins a 112-acre site that falls within one of the government's designated "enterprise zones" for Liverpool. Spencer said he has signed conditional contracts with a number of busineses, many from outside the area, that would like to locate in the zone if he provides the basic services and planning.

The difficulty, Spencer said, is that the city administration, which actually owns the land and had leased it to British-Leyland on a long-term basis, now wants to retain ultimate control over the property.

"They say they're not sure they want an enterprise zone there," Spencer complained. Other officials confirmed that the city was dragging its feet on the project, ostensibly because authorities are skeptical of Spencer's financial backing.

The real difficulty, informed sources say, is that the local political brokers and elected officials waste time, energy and ultimately money in squabbles and petty disputes.

The work of the City Council, for instance, has been stymied by a stalemate among the three main parties: Liberal, which retains the chairmanship, Labor and Conservative. Some crucial functions are performed by the Merseyside County Council which is Labor-dominated.

While Spencer and others like him may be eager to invest, red tape and bureaucracy get in the way. Moreover, there is considerable resentment of the dock project, kown as the Merseyside Development Corp., because it has powers that supersede those of local officials.

One exasperated businessman who was trying to get approval to put up a wall told the Liverpool Echo: "I have this beautiful scheme, but I'm held up because I can't get this simple little wall built . . . . I keep finding new people who have to be consulted. You go round and round . . . . The county hates the city. Everybody hates the development corporation. They'll do everything they can to stop something from happening and its only by threatening them with Heseltine eventually that I've got somewhere."

That is where the task force comes in. Its purpose, according to Sorensen, is to provide overall coordination and advice for local officials and industry, "to get things done," rather than to carry out the projects itself. The aura of Heseltine's regular visits apparently helps, as does the fact that no other approach has stemmed Liverpool's fall.

Suppose there was a "massive" investment in public works as Mulhearn and other community leaders demand, would that work? A fortune already has been spent on public housing, Sorensen replied, and as a result of poor management and the region's general problems, much of it already is worse than the slums they replaced.

"You can't build housing without regard to future jobs," he said. "You have to consider the base level of economic activity, move on a number of parallel fronts: training, provision of factory sites and landscaping, among others."

The problem, as Sorensen admits, is that it takes time to get started. So far the private sector investment in Liverpool's revival is relatively small, a few million dollars at most.On the other hand, in the year since the riots, the central government has put up the equivalent of about$80 million for Liverpool, including money spent on the dock site.