Tories’ top mayor disowns Rishi Sunak on eve of poll

Exclusive: Tees Valley mayor’s extraordinary broadside against his own party as Tories brace for drubbing in local elections – and MPs plot no-confidence vote in event of Labour landslide

David Maddox
Political Editor
Wednesday 01 May 2024 21:16 BST
Who is Rishi Sunak?

High-profile Tory mayor Ben Houchen has lashed out at the state of the Conservative Party under Rishi Sunak as he battles to hold on to his job running Tees Valley.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Lord Houchen warned that his potential defeat in this week’s local elections should be “a wake-up call” for Tory MPs.

And in an extraordinary broadside at his own party, he said voters were pledging to support him, but not the Tories at the next general election.

Lord Houchen told The Independent: “There are lots of people who will come up to me and speak to me that say that they’re going to vote for me, but they probably won’t be voting for the Conservative Party in the general election.”

He said attempts by ministers to crack down on illegal migration, including the release of pictures showing potential deportees being rounded up, “will not be enough” to save the party.

His damning intervention comes as the local election battle intensified on Wednesday, with the Tories reporting Labour West Midlands mayoral candidate Richard Parker to police for alleged electoral fraud.

Sunak and Houchen during a visit to see the construction works at Teesside Freeport in Redcar in July 2022
Sunak and Houchen during a visit to see the construction works at Teesside Freeport in Redcar in July 2022 (AFP/Getty)

There have been predictions the Conservatives could lose more than 500 of the 985 council seats they are defending. Labour also hopes to take the mayoralties of Teeside and the West Midlands as well as many of the 29 police and crime commissioner roles currently held by Tories.

Conservative MPs are waiting to see the results before deciding if they will seek a vote of no confidence in Mr Sunak.

Lord Houchen’s survival – along with West Midlands mayor Andy Street – is seen as one of the benchmarks for the prime ministers to avoid a full-scale rebellion from backbenchers.

The latest poll put Lord Houchen narrowly ahead of his local Labour rival, but he has seen a collapse in his support compared to the 2021 election when he won more than 70 per cent of the vote. At that time, the party was under the leadership of Boris Johnson, who Lord Houchen backed to return when Liz Truss quit in October 2022.

He said: “It’s absolutely closer, it was always going to be closer.

“Last time we were very much on a high with the national party, Boris, the Hartlepool by-election, lots of things came together very positively for us. So, last time was a much easier task, whereas this time it’s going to be more difficult, more of a challenge, much tighter and much, much closer.”

Lord Houchen has been Tees Valley mayor since 2017, when he first defeated Labour in a shock victory.

But he has pinned his current struggles on the state of the Tory government, noting: “[The problem] is purely national politics, and that leads to a change of mood in the country.”

Even if he wins, it will not necessarily signal a recovery for the wider party because he has built up a strong high personal vote in his seven years as mayor, Lord Houchen warned. He has made no mention of Mr Sunak in any of his election literature.

Lord Houchen has been helped by the absence of a Reform UK candidate running against him that might have otherwise split the Tory vote.

He said: “[It] tends to split down generally into two groups of people. One who is saying they’re going to vote Reform in the general election and another group who’s saying they’re just not going to vote.”

Lord Houchen also believes Labour “is struggling to get its vote out” and claims that whatever the result the region will never be safe for Sir Keir Starmer’s party again.

He accused Labour of attempting a “dirty tricks campaign” against him after Michael Gove launched an investigation into alleged “corruption, wrongdoing and illegality” at Teesside freeport redevelopment. He was cleared in January.

However, he warns that if he fails with no Reform candidate against him it will be bad news for the dozens of Tory MPs elected in red-wall seats in the north and midlands.

Ben Houchen backed Boris Johnson for a return to Downing Street – and the mayor has shown considerably less support for Rishi Sunak
Ben Houchen backed Boris Johnson for a return to Downing Street – and the mayor has shown considerably less support for Rishi Sunak (Getty)

“If we can’t get through on Thursday, then it’s going to look extremely difficult to be able to hold anything.

“Teesside is one of the few places that can genuinely say confidently that we are ... delivering on levelling up. There are real tangible things that show that I think the fact that we are doing that.

“If we were to lose on Thursday, I think that would be a wake-up call for a lot of people, certainly a lot of Conservative MPs across the red wall who don’t necessarily have the same deliverables and the things to point to that we do.”

Lord Houchen also disagrees with Tory MPs who believe that solving the migrant crisis is the key to holding on to red-wall seats with a heavy focus on deportation flights to Rwanda.

“Rwanda will help if we get some flights off the ground... But in and of itself, it’s not enough. Immigration is never enough. There’s always a section of people who are obsessed by it, and it is a serious issue.

“But elections are won on the economy, on whether people feel like the country is getting better, is going to be better for them and their kids.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in