Sun, 19 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Defeat For Ben Houchen Is Rishi Sunak's Biggest Danger Zone

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen (Alamy)

6 min read

Not long ago the thought of Tory mayor of the Tees Valley Ben Houchen being voted out was pretty much unthinkable. That the possibility of it happening next month is even worrying Conservatives suggests the local elections really could spell serious trouble for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Questions over whether Sunak could face a confidence vote following the 2 May local elections have once again been muttered around Westminster while Parliament remains dormant during the three-week Easter recess.

The locals, in which multiple councils, mayoralties and police and crime commissioners are up for election, are expected to be bruising for Sunak, who is desperately in need of something to demonstrate to restless MPs that the general election is not already lost for the Conservatives. Sunak must call a vote before the end of this year, and Labour's soaring poll leads suggest that the Tories would suffer a historic defeat if it was held tomorrow.

Currently only a small gang of Tory rebels are engaged in an ongoing, not-so-covert campaign to oust the Prime Minister, while the vast majority of Conservative MPs believe another change of leadership would be ridiculous, and only make them look worse to an already hostile electorate. Fifteen per cent of Tory backbenchers, or just over 50, would have to write letters of no confidence in Sunak to chair of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady to trigger a vote on his leadership. 

But there is a growing belief that mass defeats next month would sharpen the minds of more moderate MPs and bolster the rebels' numbers. The fate of Houchen in particular on 2 May could prove especially explosive. 

Last month, PoliticsHome reported concern among some Tory MPs that Houchen and Conservative mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street could be the most high-profile casualties of a local election drubbing. 

Houchen losing would be a particularly stunning warning of defeat to Conservative MPs given the nature of his victory in 2021 when he was elected as Tees Valley mayor with 72.8 per cent of the vote, compared with 27.2 per cent for Labour candidate Jessie Joe Jacobs. At the time, it was jokingly described as a "North Korea level" margin of victory.

Figures in the Tories and Labour stress, however, that it was a mayoral election fought in unusual circumstances that no longer favour the Tories in 2024.

During the 2021 local elections, a range of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were still in place. With charismatic Boris Johnson still at its helm, the Conservative government had not yet been rocked by the partygate scandal or Liz Truss's economic adventures, and enjoyed relatively healthy leads in the opinion polls. A YouGov survey conducted over the two days before Houchen's massive victory (4-5 May) gave the Tories a 10 per cent over Labour. On the same day Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer beat Labour at the Hartlepool by-election, providing Keir Starmer with one of his most vulnerable moments as Labour leader so far.

Labour is now keen to capitalise on the reverse in the Tories' fortunes and sees Tees Valley as a high value target. Speaking to the party's National Executive Committee last week, Starmer told party officials that unseating Houchen (as well as Street) was the primary focus on 2 May.

Houchen is regarded as the poster boy for the Tory party's flagship levelling up pledge, meaning victory for Labour candidate Chris McEwan, the deputy leader of Darlington Council, would be especially symbolic in the party's bid to reclaim seats in the north of England. Winning in the Tees Valley is an important part of Labour's general election strategy, as along with Street's West Midlands it contains more target seats than any other area outside of Scotland.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen and Levelling Up Minister Jacob Young in Redcar (Alamy)

The Labour campaign in the north east is essentially twofold. The first element is an attempt to tie Houchen to 14 years of Conservative rule in Westminster and the party's damaged national brand.

Houchen seems determined to neutralise this attack by explicitly distancing himself from the Tory party. In a social media post last week, Houchen said "I'm not dictated, whipped or told what to do by any party" and stated the upcoming mayoral election "isn't about national politics or the nonsense that happens in Westminster". A Houchen ally said independence of mind was one of his strengths. "Ben transcends party politics, it’s about pragmatism and what the area needs," they added.

A Labour figure in the region claimed this was "disingenuous", pointing to Houchen's voting record as a peer in the House of Lords. "He has voted 29 times, all with the Tory whip. He is a party loyalist first and foremost," they told PoliticsHome.

The second tier of Labour's oust-Houchen strategy is casting doubt over whether he can be trusted following the Teeswork saga — an issue which has not gone away despite the mayor's best efforts.

An independent review into the sale of a large industrial site outside the town of Redcar to private developers found no wrongdoing or criminality. However, the January report made 28 recommendations in response to what it described as a lack of transparency. "The shine has come off [Houchen]," claimed one Labour MP who has campaigned in the region.

Another Labour source admitted that removing Houchen would be a mammoth task, however. "He’s still the most popular Tory in the country," they told PoliticsHome. A Labour activist jokingly likened the task to trying to win leafy Surrey County Council where 45 of 81 councillors are Tory and only two are Labour.

There is also suspicion that some of the briefings about Tory fear for Houchen are an exercise in expectation management that will boost a victory narrative if he does keep his seat as mayor. One senior Tory party figure conceded to PoliticsHome that they strongly expected Houchen to win another term.

Allies of Houchen hope that the "tangible" change he has brought to the Tees Valley in the form of investment and jobs will be enough to get him over the line.

Writing in The Times on Thursday, The Spectator's Katy Balls said some Conservative MPs refer to him as the "£160 million man" due to the amount of money his region has received from the Government in recent years. “If someone was to write the history books in 30 to 40 years’ time, they would describe the last six years in Teesside as being the catalyst of the transformative change brought about here," one Tory in the region told PoliticsHome. "It hasn’t seen investment like this since the Victorian era.”

If Houchen does lose on 2 May, then Conservative MPs will be more inclined to believe the most ominous projections about what awaits them come the general election. Sunak will likely be watching for the Tees Valley result especially nervously. 


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