Tees Valley’s mayor may be a straw for Tories to clutch, but even if he wins he can’t save Sunak

Local elections preview: Ben Houchen may buck the trend, but the outlook is still bad for the Conservatives come the general election, writes John Rentoul

Wednesday 01 May 2024 16:28 BST
If Ben Houchen holds on as mayor of Tees Valley, that does not mean very much for the Tories nationally
If Ben Houchen holds on as mayor of Tees Valley, that does not mean very much for the Tories nationally (Getty)

Directly elected mayors are a useful innovation for the Conservatives. They enable them to win elections in places where they have no chance of gaining control of local councils – and if Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor of Tees Valley, wins re-election on Thursday, his success might distract from Tory failure elsewhere.

The Tories are expected to lose hundreds of seats on councils across England and Wales, but inevitably attention is going to be focused on a few high-profile mayoral contests – at least one of which is likely to give Rishi Sunak a straw to clutch.

Sadiq Khan’s bid for an unprecedented third term as mayor of London is the biggest contest this week. The result is hardly in doubt, but his margin of victory will be subjected to chin-stroking analysis about how far short of Labour expectations he has fallen.

Labour canvassers report that Khan’s personal unpopularity is a drag on the Labour vote. His Ulez scheme (ultra-low emissions zone) is resented, even though its extension to outer London boroughs did not cause the electoral meltdown that some Tories hoped for after the Uxbridge by-election last year. Khan is widely blamed for knife crime, and the issue has been given tragic prominence by the killing of a 14-year-old boy in Hainault, east London, on Tuesday.

While Khan is less popular than his party, the real hopes of the Tory spin machine rest on two mayors who are more popular than their party: Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands. Neither of them mentions the Conservative Party in their campaign materials, except in the small print, and Street’s campaign colours are green and purple rather than blue. Both of them have strong personal reputations that transcend party labels.

There have been two opinion polls in Tees Valley, one showing Houchen tied with Chris McEwan, his Labour opponent, and the other putting him seven points ahead. The four most recent polls from different companies in the West Midlands range from a two-point lead for Street to a six-point lead for Richard Parker, his Labour opponent.

The betting markets are fairly sure that Houchen will win, but give Street only a 45 per cent chance. If Street does win, therefore, expect the Tories to make a huge song and dance about it. Both main parties are frantically playing the expectations game, insisting that they are on course to lose, to try to convince journalists to report “shock” wins that put them on course to do better than expected in the general election.

In fact, none of these contests is a particularly good guide to the general election. If Street and Houchen win, it will be despite the Tories’ unpopularity nationally. And if Khan wins by a surprisingly small margin over Susan Hall, the Tory candidate whose appeal seems rather narrow, it will not mean that Keir Starmer’s campaign for No 10 is faltering.

The only candidate who might tell us something about the national picture is Jamie Driscoll, the independent running for the new North East mayoralty. Despite having been the Labour mayor of North of Tyne, which is part of the new combined authority, he was despatched to the outer darkness, presumably for the thoughtcrime of being vaguely Corbynite. If Driscoll wins, it would expose the limits of the appeal of Starmer’s “changed Labour Party”.

Most of the other mayoral contests are safe Labour holds, including Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, where he won 67 per cent of the vote last time. But there are two new mayoralties that are interesting: East Midlands, and York and North Yorkshire. Claire Ward, the former Labour MP, is expected to win comfortably in the East Midlands, against Ben Bradley, the current Tory MP, while the betting markets think Labour will win in Yorkshire. This would be an impressive result for David Skaith, the Labour candidate, because North Yorkshire is true-blue Tory territory, including the prime minister’s Richmond constituency. Not only that, but there is no Reform UK candidate to siphon votes away from Keane Duncan, his Tory rival.

Finally, there is the parliamentary by-election in Blackpool South, although it will be one of the early results, expected at about 4am on Friday. The outcome is not in doubt, as the seat is a Labour-Tory marginal and Labour is miles ahead in national opinion polls. There are only two questions: how the swing to Labour compares with recent records and with the period before the 1997 landslide; and what share of the vote Mark Butcher, the Reform UK candidate, will win.

The best way to make sense of Thursday’s voting overall, though, will be to look out for the BBC’s attempt to estimate the shares of the vote won by the parties in the local elections if the whole country had voted.

A rough estimate by Sam Freedman, a former government adviser, is that Labour’s share will be about 12 points higher than the Tory share. This is lower than Labour’s current 20-point lead in national opinion polls, reflecting the stronger Liberal Democrat vote in local elections. If Labour does significantly better or worse than a 12-point lead, then it is time to ask some questions about the party’s prospects at the general election. But if Ben Houchen holds on as mayor of Tees Valley, that does not mean very much for the Tories nationally.

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