As local election results pour in across the country, it's the Tees Valley count that is making waves. Ben Houchen has been re-elected as Tees Valley mayor with 73 per cent of the vote. To put things into perspective, Houchen won 39.5 per cent of the vote in 2017. His re-election had been priced in after the Tories' success in the Hartlepool by-election. However, the size of his mandate has taken even Houchen's supporters by surprise.
So what's gone right? When the Tees Valley mayoralty was created, the general consensus was that Labour would win it. When Houchen won, it came as a surprise and was seen by some as a result of Theresa May's popularity. However, Houchen's popularity has endured where May's has waned.
Firstly, Houchen has created his own brand of Conservatism. He has become known for doing things differently – he has taken Teesside International Airport into public ownership and pledged to ‘bring steelmaking back to Teesside’ with electric arc furnace technology. Neither scream Tory. He has also worked closely with ministers to make sure Teesside is at the heart of levelling up plans, from pledging to introduce free ports to moving parts of the Treasury to Darlington.
When I interviewed Houchen last year, he told me that Teesside Tories are 'much more practical' in nature:
'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.’
He also put the turning point for the party's success in the region as far back as 2005:
'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.’
When we spoke back then, Houchen said he often messaged the Chancellor over WhatsApp but didn't always get a reply (even if the blue ticks showed Sunak had read the messages). With Houchen viewed as a key factor in the Tories' success in the region, that's likely to change.