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3 May 2024updated 08 May 2024 2:53pm

Should Rishi Sunak really celebrate Ben Houchen’s victory?

The Tees Valley mayor only won by running against the Prime Minister.

By Freddie Hayward

The Conservative Party’s candidates are being rejected by voters en masse in this year’s local elections. They were heavily defeated by Labour in the Blackpool by-election and are on course to lose around half (500) of the councillors up for election. But now No 10 has something to celebrate: Ben Houchen has been re-elected in the Tees Valley mayoral election, with 53.6 per cent of the vote, compared to nearly 73 per cent in 2021, against Labour’s 41.3 per cent.

Houchen, who was ennobled by Boris Johnson and has been closely associated with his levelling-up agenda, is a prominent voice within the party. Despite controversies surrounding a development site in his patch, he has built a personal reputation that elevates him above the Tories’ toxic brand.

Nonetheless, Conservative insiders see the mayoral elections as a means of distracting unruly MPs from a massacre in the council elections. The irony for a Prime Minister reliant on victories such as Houchen’s to stave off internal revolt is that Houchen only won by standing apart from Rishi Sunak. Something to watch is whether his victory could bolster the narrative within the party that a Johnsonian strategy – personality-based and focused on levelling up (abandoned by Sunak) – delivers electoral success.

But the news is bittersweet for the Conservatives. Labour’s vote in the Tees Valley has increased by 14.1 points compared with 2021, while the Tory vote fell by 19.2 points. Labour sources point out that if the swing against Houchen was replicated at a general election, then they would win in Darlington, Hartlepool, Redcar, Stockton West, and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. BBC News predicts that if the swing was repeated across the north-east at the general election, the Conservatives would lose all their seats. The progress the Conservatives made in 2019 across the Red Wall has been largely reversed. Labour will be disappointed not to have ousted Houchen, but pleased by what the results suggest for the general election.

Attention will now turn to the West Midlands where its Conservative mayor Andy Street, who has also distanced himself from the party, is hoping to hang on. As Street appears likely to win, a narrative is emerging that Labour is losing Muslim voters in the area because of its position on Gaza. If Street wins, that narrative will only deepen.

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[See also: The SNP’s agonies are simply democratic politics working]

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