Ben Houchen snubs Rishi Sunak in victory as he holds on as Tees Valley mayor

Tory heavyweight Ben Houchen made no mention of Rishi Sunak or the Conservative Party after he defied the odds to hold on as Tees Valley mayor

David Maddox
Political Editor
Friday 03 May 2024 15:55 BST
Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen offers no mention of Tories nor Sunak during victory speech

The Tories have held on in the Tees Valley mayor race with a result which could save Rishi Sunak from facing a vote of confidence after a terrible set of local election results.

However, as Conservative mayor Ben Houchen won in the north east he snubbed the Prime Minister in his acceptance speech and thanked voters for “backing my plan”. He also pointedly made it clear he would be happy to work with Sir Keir Starmer if the Labour leader becomes Prime Minister later this year.

Even more concerning for the Tories was that the swing to Labour would see them win back the parliamentary seats won by the party in 2019 fall to Labour.

Lord Houchen got 81,930 votes (53.6 percent) and his Labour rival Chris McEwan 63,141 (41,3 percent). The turnout was just 30.8 percent. Lord Houchen also saw a collapse in his vote which was 73.5 percent in 2021.

In the aftermath of humilating results in council elections and a drubbing in the Blackpool South by-election the result has offered the Prime Minister some hope.

Speaking in North Yorkshire, Mr Sunak told Sky News that Tees Valley was “a key battleground in a general election” and victory shows that he can lead his party to victory.

He later tweeted to congratulate “my friend” Lord Houchen knowing that Tory MPs were looking at the result as an indication over whether they should call a vote of confidence in his leadership of the party.


In his acceptance speech Lord Houchen, who was not even wearing a blue Tory rosette, said he was “humbled” by his victory but made no mention of Rishi Sunak or the Conservative Party.

He thanked voters in the north east for “backing my plan” for the region.

Later on Sky News he conceded that it had “been a shared effort” with Mr Sunak and claimed he “forgot” his rosette but was wearing a blue tie and blue socks.

However, Lord Houchen also made it clear he would work with whoever becomes Prime Minister including Sir Keir Starmer.

Beofre the result he told Sky News: “My job as mayor is to do what I can for local people, and if that means I’ve got to work with the Prime Minister, to be frank it doesn’t matter to me who that is – I’m going to do all I can to make sure I get the best deal for the local area… even if there is a change of government later this year or if Rishi is still PM or it’s somebody else, I‘ll work with anybody.”

Ahead of the result being formally announced, a Labour source has told ITV that “it’s a win for Ben Houchen, not the Conservative Party” and Labour “is on track to achieve the 12.5 percent swing in the region it needs to win back seats here.”

Labour candidate Chris McEwan and Conservative candidate Lord Ben Houchen, during a count of votes for the Tees Valley mayoral election (Owen Humphreys/PA)
Labour candidate Chris McEwan and Conservative candidate Lord Ben Houchen, during a count of votes for the Tees Valley mayoral election (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Wire)

Labour pointed out that the 16.7 percent swing in Tees Valley was enough for them to win every parliamentary seat in tees Valley back from th etories while it would have taken a 23 percent swing to unseat Lord Houchen.

A Labour spokesperson said: “This is swing towards Labour in Tees Valley puts Labour on track to win every single seat in the area in a general election. The Conservatives should be extremely worried that their candidate had to run as an independent to win. If Rishi Sunak doesn’t take this result as a major wake up call he is in denial.”

Lord Houchen told The Independent earlier in the week that voters in the region have said they would back him on thursday but not support the Conservative Party in a general election.

He said: “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.”

The result is one of the few positives for the Tories on a day of local election counts which see them on track to lose more than 500 of the 985 council seats they were defending.

Sunak believes he can hold on as Tory leader
Sunak believes he can hold on as Tory leader (Getty Images)

Lord Houchen has been Tees Valley mayor since 2017 and Labour claim “he basically ran as an independent” ahead of the election on Thursday.

Tory MPs are debating behind the scenes whether to push for a vote of confidence in Mr Sunak’s leadership after polls continue to show they are heading for a catastrophic defeat at the next election.

However, many are waiting to see what happens with Houchen in Teesside and West Midlands mayor Andy Street whose result will be announced tomorrow.

Former Chancellor George Osborne warned last night that had Lord Houchen lost it would have been “an Apocalypse” for the Conservative Party while defeat for Street would be “bad.”

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