On Tuesday I noted that most of the areas represented by the Mayor of the West Midlands were not traditional Tory territory. That applies even more so when it comes to Tees Valley. That covers the five local authorities of Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland, Hartlepool, and Darlington. Together they constitute the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Yet on May 7th 2017, we saw Ben Houchen, the Conservative candidate, elected as the Mayor of the Tees Valley. The margin of victory was almost as narrow as Andy Street’s in the West Midlands. In the first round, Houchen won 39.5 per cent of the vote, compared to 39.0 per cent to his Labour opponent. The second round then saw transfers added from UKIP and Lib Dem supporters. This saw Houchen elected with 51.1 per cent, with his Labour opponent on 48.9 per cent.
In 2017, the local election results extrapolated into a projected national lead of 11 per cent for the Conservatives over Labour. So if one was to be a desiccated calculating machine, the conclusion would be that current opinion poll leads for the Conservatives below nine per cent indicate that Houchen will be defeated. But that would discount regional variations. Just as the Conservatives have been doing relatively badly in London, when it comes to Teesside they are on the up.
Among the soundings I have taken, the Conservatives are rather bullish about Houchen’s prospects. Of course, the political direction anticipated in Hartlepool has already been much discussed. But the General Election of 2019 offers plenty of encouraging stats. The Conservatives not only gained Darlington but had a majority of over 3,000. The same happened in Redcar. Stockton South was gained and with a Conservative majority of over 5,000. Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland was not just held by the Conservatives, but with a majority of over 10,000. Labour hung on in Stockton North – but only by a thousand votes. In other words, though Labour only needs a tiny advance on their 2017 result to win, if we take 2019 as the guide, then Labour would need a significant recovery.
While Houchen’s victory was a shock, his credentials as a candidate were pretty solid. Though he was young to take on such a formidable role – he is still only 34 – Houchen had already qualified as a solicitor, founded a successful international sportswear business, stood for Parliament, and served as Leader of the Conservative Group on Stockton-on-Tees Council.
As Mayor, perhaps his greatest national significance has been in championing freeports – a theme he has written about for us. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had argued in 2016 that Brexit gave an opportunity to make use of them. However, with the grey men in Whitehall always looking out for “administrative difficulties” it is important to having vigorous backing. Not just for such reforms to be introduced, but to do applied in a bold and radical way – rather than emasculated when it comes to the small print. Eight freeports were announced in last month’s Budget, including one in Teesside.
“I passionately believe that a Teesside Freeport can be a jobs dynamo, a roaring engine of economic growth, and a flag-bearing project for Global Britain. There are huge opportunities for job creation here. The wide package of tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning processes freeports will benefit from can bring in the investment needed to unlock Teesside’s latent economic power.”
Freeports fit in with Conservative principles when it comes to “levelling up”. That is because they rely on the confidence that, if the state gets out of the way, then the free market will prove effective at widening prosperity. Not that Houchen is entirely fanatical in following free market ideology. He brought Teesside Airport back under state ownership.
Houchen is the Chairman of the South Tees Development Corporation – the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of Greater London. It covers a 4,500 acre site in Redcar – including the former SSI steelworks site. Houchen has pledged to use his powers to “kickstart” economic development on the site.
The Devolution Deal negotiated included transport infrastructure and adult education and training.
There was a low turnout last time which makes the result harder to predict. Many former Labour supporters felt let down and abstained in 2017 as a way of signifying their disillusion while retaining an antipathy to the Conservatives. What will they do next month? Some may return to the Labour fold, feeling that their old Party has been taught a lesson and has removed Jeremy Corbyn. They may note that Labour seems to have accepted that Brexit is now the reality and do not propose we rejoin the EU. Others may be less forgiving. Having been neglected and taken for granted by Labour for all those years, they might grudgingly concede that the Conservatives are making a bit of an effort on their behalf. My prediction is that enough of them will agree that Houchen has kept faith with them to secure a second term.