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Houchen’s Narrow Victory in Tees Valley: A Shaky Lifeline for Sunak Amidst Tory Uncertainty

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Ben Houchen's victory in Tees Valley may not entirely reassure local Conservative MPs. The Conservative Party executed a strategic lowering of expectations in the Tees Valley mayoral contest. However, the implications of this outcome for the wider nation remain uncertain.

Assistant Political Editor @SamCoatesSky

Friday, May 3, 2024, 5:

As the elections approached, the activities at Number 10 were bordering on the overt.

Top officials at Downing Street acknowledged that if Ben Houchen were to be defeated in his role as mayor of the Tees Valley Combined Authority by a Labour candidate, it could pose a significant threat to Rishi Sunak's leadership. They admitted that under such circumstances, they might not be able to prevent the accumulation of enough letters to initiate a no-confidence vote.

This could have potentially led to an undesirable and disastrous premature election.

It's quite atypical for the prime minister's closest confidants to be publicly pondering his longevity in office. This reflects the current volatile state of political affairs.

Their actions had a purposeful logic.

As the campaign entered its last week, Houchen's political survival had become crucial for Sunak. However, it wasn't until they felt secure about winning that Number 10 began communicating this significance to the press.

Essentially, they heightened the tension surrounding the Tees Valley election, fully anticipating that everything would turn out fine – thus, their eventual victory would seem all the more relieving.

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The strategic yet essential handling of expectations was evident, as it was clear from the start that they were confident of a victory. This was apparent when Sunak was conveniently positioned in Yorkshire that very morning, ready to celebrate their success later in the day.

Regardless of the fact that Houchen's campaign approach seemed more aligned with the charismatic style of Boris Johnson than that of his successor at Number 10. And despite the stark contrast in their political ideologies – one favoring heavy expenditure and the other fiscal prudence – these differences will be temporarily overlooked.

Sky News forecast: Labour likely to become the biggest party, yet without a clear majority.

Houchen is a notable figure in public engagements, though there are significant reservations regarding the prudence of the investment choices concerning Teesworks, as well as the logic behind the collaborations formed to advance certain projects.

During my visit to Teesside last month, it was evident that Houchen's achievements surpassed partisan boundaries.

Discover additional coverage from Sky News: Results of local elections: Who emerged victorious? Houchen open to collaboration with Starmer in case of Tory defeat in national vote.

He has persuaded a significant portion of voters that he has tangible accomplishments, and Labour's efforts to convince the public that he has not succeeded in improving the region have not been very effective.

Despite the apparent victory, a deeper look at the statistics reveals a different narrative.

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Regarding the major issue before the general election, it concerns the implications of Houchen's victory, assuming it occurs.

Houchen secured victory, albeit with a significantly diminished portion of the vote, decreasing from an outstanding 73% in 2021 to slightly more than 50% currently. Labour suggests that several constituencies—including Darlington, Hartlepool, Redcar, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Stockton West—would revert to Labour under comparable circumstances.

Stay informed on the newest updates from the UK and global events by tuning into Sky News.

Despite Houchen's current statements, it's believed that he privately questions whether Sunak truly deserves much recognition.

The outcome in Tees might have been advantageous for Downing Street today, yet it remains uncertain if this offers any reassurance to local MPs concerned about the upcoming general election.

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