Who do the Conservatives have to thank for helping them win so many seats in the north of England? Tory MPs normally name Boris Johnson, for his different approach to politics. Sometimes Dominic Cummings, too, for applying focus. But there’s one other figure regularly mentioned as a patron saint of Red Wall Tories: Ben Houchen, mayor of Tees Valley. He’s perhaps the most influential politician you’ve never heard of.
The initial Tory breakthrough in the north-east of England came three years ago when Houchen, aged 30, beat the Labour favourite to become metro mayor. ‘I thought I’d give it a good go, put up a bit of a fight, cause the Labour party a bit of a black eye — then hopefully do well and move on to something else.’
Only something went badly right. ‘There was a sea-change in opinion: we [the Conservative party] were 20 odd points ahead in the polls when I was elected.’ But when the 2017 general election came, five weeks later, that lead vanished and the Tories miserably failed to replicate his success. Houchen, it seemed, had his own appeal. And it’s a commodity that his party has been carefully studying ever since.
Five of the eight seats in Tees Valley — an area spanning Redcar and Cleveland, Hartlepool, Darlington and Middlesbrough — are now held by the party. ‘It’s kind of fashionable at the moment to be a Teesside Tory,’ he admits when we meet in his office near Stockton-on-Tees. ‘I don’t know how long that will last.’
As a local, Houchen doesn’t have to think far back to when that wasn’t the case. The son of a police officer, he didn’t know any Tories growing up — though he’s quick to clarify that his isn’t ‘one of those sob stories’. He says his election as mayor wasn’t so much his victory as Labour’s collapse. ‘If you look at every general, local or European election since 2005, Labour have gone backwards in this region,’ he explains. And then it reached an inflection point. ‘For the first time in forever, you had a region that didn’t just have strong Labour councils since the war.’
It was a region noticing that, in spite of having had Tony Blair in Sedgefield and Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool, it had missed out on the economic boom of the Labour years. ‘So I think quite quickly, since 2005, more and more people have looked for an alternative.’
Voting for the Tories was always going to be tough for people, he says. But the ‘additional dynamic’ of Brexit and Ukip created an opening — not so much for the Tories, as for Boris Johnson. He credits the Prime Minister’s force of personality (he backed him for the leadership both times) for the big shift. But with great power comes great responsibility — and the Tees Valley mayor is now insistent that the Tories mustn’t let the north down.
‘I’ve said to Boris himself, I’ve said to No. 10 and Rishi and the five new colleagues that I’ve got in Westminster: there’s nowhere left to hide now,’ he explains. ‘It’s a strong Tory government. Loads of Tory MPs in the region, a regional Tory mayor (at least for a couple of months), so there’s no one left to blame any more. We either really deliver something different in the next four years, or people will go back to voting for other parties.’
Houchen knows a thing or two about doing things differently. In person, he is to the point and appears unbothered about toeing the official party line. As he comes up for re-election, his achievements in the role can’t exactly be described as typically Tory. His first election pledge was to take Teesside International Airport into public ownership. He succeeded, and was pictured in a digger earlier this week, beginning work on a business park next to the airport.
His re-election campaign is based on a new project: to ‘bring steelmaking back to Teesside’ with electric arc furnace technology. It’s seen in America and elsewhere as the future of the steel industry, he says — but not in Westminster, where he regards the Theresa May-created department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as part of the problem, since it clings to the declinist view of the steel industry.
‘The biggest problem with the steel industry in the UK is Whitehall,’ he says. ‘The UK steel policy and the BEIS team are absolutely useless.’ Successive governments, he says, have failed British steelmaking for 40 years. ‘It has become a sticking plaster. Oh, British Steel’s fallen over, how do we rescue it? Oh, now south Wales is in trouble, how do we rescue it?’ There’s too much worry-ing about failure, he says, and not enough planning for success. ‘It’s never: what do we want the steel industry to look like? What can we do as a developed nation when we’re having to compete with places like China?’
Quite an energetic agenda, but it doesn’t exactly scream ‘Tory’. He admits that his various schemes have ‘raised eyebrows’ but puts it in part down to Teesside Tories being a slightly different breed. ‘This isn’t a one-size fits all,’ he says. ‘I would say Conservatives in this region are much more practical. I don’t remember having a discussion with any Tory in Teesside about free market economics and right-wing politics. It’s very much pragmatic.’
So might this be a new direction for Conservatism in general? ‘From what I’m hearing, the next Budget will probably be quite a big indicator,’ he says with a smile. ‘We may be slightly surprised at the interventionist nature this government will take over the next term.’
He says he’s trying to influence the government by adopting the tactics of Ruth Davidson when she was leader of the Scottish Conservatives: getting a group of northern MPs together to lobby the government. He’s friends (and political neighbours) with Rishi Sunak, the new Chancellor and MP for Richmond, Yorkshire. They share a passion for free ports: a post-Brexit idea to create low-tax zones for importing and exporting. ‘I can absolutely say the only reason they’re on the agenda is because we met with Boris and his leadership campaign and we presented the policy. From then on in, it was mentioned in every speech,’ he says. ‘Philip Hammond was absolutely dead set against it. He didn’t want to even engage in the possibility of them.’
He says he tends to speak to cabinet members at least twice a week and uses WhatsApp to message Sunak. Not that he always hears back. ‘He doesn’t often reply because he’s a busy man, especially in the last couple of weeks. But he does read it, because the blue ticks come up,’ he explains. ‘I’m surprised he hasn’t taken that off yet in his new role — taking off the blue ticks.’
His views on HS2 might explain why not all of his messages receive an immediate reply. ‘It’s a waste of money, an absolute waste of money,’ he says. ‘You’ve taken £107 billion? You could give us £1 billion and completely revolutionise the economy in Teesside. Things you couldn’t imagine would benefit three quarters of a million people in Teesside for less than 1 per cent of what they’re spending on HS2. It just boggles the mind that they’re spending the money.’ The only part of the project that could benefit the north-east is 20 years away, he says — ‘good luck with selling that to people in Teesside’. A Darlington station revamp, he says, would cost £100 million and bring noticeable change.
Plans to move Treasury officials to Teesside are being considered. It’s something Houchen has been pushing for — ‘if it happens that would be fantastic’ — but if it fails to come to pass, Houchen says it would be a mistake to choose Manchester or Leeds. ‘The problem with the whole of this country — whether it’s from a media perspective or a political perspective — is people look at Manchester and Leeds and just assume that’s the north. Just look at the political map: it absolutely isn’t. They are metropolitan cities. They do not represent our towns and villages across the north of England.’
He says the town/city divide, rather than the north/south divide, helps to explain the new swell of support for the Tories. ‘From a political-map perspective, it is absolutely cities versus the regions. We’ll see more of that in years ahead. So you can then translate that into more subtle messaging around the “left behind” areas,’ he says. And this is true for the south-west as much as the north-east.
The big question, of course, is how likely the Tories are to keep their new voters — and May’s mayoral elections will be a test of that. When pressed, he’s positively zen about his chances. ‘If I’m not re-elected, I can honestly say it wasn’t meant to be,’ he insists. ‘There’s nothing more that I can do.’ Helping matters perhaps is the full support his campaign is receiving from Conservative HQ. Houchen might be relaxed about re-election, but Tories know that when it comes to keeping the blue wave going, it’s a contest they can’t afford to lose.