Week-in-Review: Is Ben Houchen now Britain’s most powerful Conservative?

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In Tees Valley on Thursday, Ben Houchen did something senior Conservatives just don’t do anymore: he won. Facing a ruthless Labour campaign set on scalping the Tory patron saint for levelling up, Houchen was ultimately re-elected as mayor with 53.6 per cent of the vote. 

This margin of victory, of course, was considerably reduced from Houchen’s showing in 2021, when he scooped up a staggering 72.8 per cent vote share. Extolled as a “North Korean level” result by allies, this landslide flowed from both the supreme leader’s personal appeal in Teesside and the Conservatives’ strong standing nationally. In 2021 Boris Johnson, the then-prime minister, was bounced to local elections glory by the vaccine rollout and post-Brexit goodwill; Savanta polling at the time placed the Conservatives on 42 per cent, with Labour on 34 per cent. Two prime ministers later and Savanta’s data displays the depths the Tories have since plunged; today, Sunak’s party polls at 25 per cent, 18 points behind Labour. 

Given this, Houchen’s reduced majority in 2024 remains a remarkable outcome — better, even, than his performance in Tees Valley’s inaugural mayoral election in 2017. Then, Houchen’s triumph in non-traditional Tory territory confounded commentators and, in hindsight, foretold the Conservative assault on the “Red Wall” later in 2019. Boris Johnson was, in this sense at least, the heir to Houchen. (It goes without saying that the Tees Valley mayor has also outlasted said totemic realignment and its purported progenitor).

Indeed, having first taken Tees Valley in 2017, Houchen’s longevity far surpasses many of his fellow Conservatives at Westminster — among whom executive office is redistributed at alarmingly regular intervals. For this reason among others, Houchen cut himself adrift from the tarnished Tory brand in this most recent mayoral campaign. His election literature bore scant reference to the national Conservative Party or its leader: “Back Ben”, boasted the placards; “Shut out Sunak”, whispered the subtext. 

When it came time to deliver his victory address on Friday, Houchen did not even don a blue rosette — standard practice for any party politician. He later attributed his naked lapel to mere oversight: “I didn’t have one and I forgot it”, Houchen told Sky News. That it did not even cross the nominally Conservative Tees Valley mayor’s mind to reach for a rosette is, naturally, highly revealing. 

However, Houchen’s much-discussed bid to distance himself from the Conservative Party did not stop Sunak visiting Teesside on Friday to bask in his mayoral glory. Activists, having finally located placards with the word “Conservative” on them, cheered Houchen as he gushed of Sunak: “I could have not delivered the things I’ve delivered in this region without you”. Looking ahead to the general election, the prime minister launched into his own stump speech, praising Houchen’s “fantastic Conservative team”. 

Positioned alongside the victorious mayor, Sunak’s relief was palpable. Reports for months had tied the PM’s political future to the local elections broadly; but as polling day inched closer into view, it was the races for the West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoralties that featured above all others. In hindsight, No 10’s decision to guide commentators towards the winnable Tees Valley and away from the more revealing councillor races was canny indeed. But calculated or not, victory for Houchen became the bar Rishi Sunak had to hit to avoid a further rebel rhapsody — an onslaught that would have likely put previous “grid of s***s” to shame.

In this sense, the PM can derive some short-term solace from Houchen’s victory. However, beyond his immediate intra-party considerations, Sunak will recognise that a race that defies national trends definitionally cannot be treated as evidence of broader political revivification. Health minister Andrea Leadsom’s claim on Friday that Houchen’s victory is an “absolute testament to the Conservative government” is so blind to political reality as to be insulting. Don’t for a second doubt it: Houchen won in spite of the Tory brand, not because of it. In fact, while the PM may yet realise it, the stark dichotomy between Houchen’s triumph in Teesside and the Conservatives’ broader councillor losses (which No 10 owns) does not reflect all that well on the PM politically.

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It is, at the end of the day, accepted that the average Tory’s primary obsession is winning votes and elections. Conservative leaders receive the benefit of the doubt from sceptical colleagues when in the ascendant; but once the electoral tide turns so too does the Conservative herd. 

As such, the impact the Conservative Party’s rolling electoral routings have had on the political landscape cannot be overstated — both in terms of shaping rebel MP behaviour and adjusting the expectations of Sunak’s supporters. The local elections will do little for the prime minister’s reputation as a loser, Houchen’s triumph notwithstanding.

But the big story here is not the fate of Rishi Sunak — who will now not face a no-confidence ballot he would have surely won, and whose political career still looks unlikely to endure beyond the next general election. Rather, consider Houchen’s position: one wonders whether it has dawned on the Tees Valley mayor that he could soon hold the highest elected office of any Conservative in the land.

On Friday then, Houchen defied the political trends to which Sunak could soon succumb; and, crucially, he did so in traditionally non-Tory territory. Both in the short and long terms, this affords the Tees Valley mayor significant soft power within the national Conservative Party — just as it looks set to undergo a profound political transformation.

This is especially pertinent as Houchen and Sunak hail from fundamentally different schools of Conservative politics. Having brought the loss-making Teesside International Airport into public ownership in 2019, Houchen has frequently exhibited a willingness to govern against the grain of traditional Conservatism. Indeed, The Spectator‘s Katy Balls reported last month that Conservative MPs refer to the Tees Valley mayor as the “£160 million man”, a reference to the amount of money his region has received from central government in recent years. In this vein, Houchen recently announced a new “revolutionary” £1 billion transport strategy — including a £1 million scoping review to see if there could be a tunnel from Hartlepool to Redcar, burrowing beneath the local river and port. 

Ultimately, Houchen — who was ennobled by Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list — subscribes to the same theory of politics as the ex-PM: as long as shovels are in the ground, you’re winning. Prices rising at a slightly lower rate than last month is one thing, but nothing beats the visceral politics of an improbable infrastructure project. (Houchen recently admitted to the Telegraph that no one in Teesside would be able to name Sunak’s five priorities). 

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This vision of “levelling up” as big-state conservatism is, of course, not entirely at one with the prime minister’s politics. When it comes to addressing regional disparity, the prime minister prefers freeports to funding pots; whereas Boris Johnson never saw a spending commitment he didn’t like, Sunak is a fiscal conservative in the truest sense.

But Houchen’s practical politics also jars with the ideological trajectory the Conservative looks set to assume post-Sunak. In an interview with Katy Balls in 2020, Houchen declared he had never held a discussion with “any Tory in Teesside about free-market economics and right-wing politics”. It is striking then, that prospective Conservative leadership candidates are already courting Houchen’s support for a contest to come — according to the aforementioned Telegraph interview. Today, after a high-profile mayoral campaign, Houchen’s political future as a Tory power broker — even kingmaker — seems secure. 

Of course, the mayor-to-premier pathway would not be a novel trajectory for a Tory politician. But in the meantime, Houchen is at the very least destined to become a staple of the conservative think tank circuit — the existential ruminations of which will only heighten after a likely general election defeat. 

The bottom line is that, after the local elections, Houchen’s political appeal is a commodity the Conservatives would be well-advised to study. The Tees Valley mayor offers a path forward for a party whose lack of direction is quickly becoming its defining trait. That makes Houchen immensely, perhaps uniquely, powerful. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.