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Houchen’s Victory in Tees Valley: A Relief for Sunak, But Uncertain Future for Tory MPs

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Ben Houchen's victory in Tees Valley may not reassure other local Conservative MPs

The Conservative Party carefully managed expectations in the Tees Valley mayoral contest. However, it remains to be seen what effect this outcome will have nationally.

Assistant Political Editor @SamCoatesSky

Friday, May 3, 2024, 5:

As the elections approached, the actions 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 challenge to Rishi Sunak. They recognized that under such circumstances, they might not be able to prevent a surge of letters needed to initiate a vote of no confidence.

This could have potentially led to an unintended and disastrous snap election.

It's quite extraordinary for the prime minister's most trusted associates to publicly question his chances of remaining in office, indicating just how tumultuous the current political climate is.

Their actions had a purposeful logic.

As the campaign entered its last week, the fate of Houchen had turned into a critical issue for Sunak. However, it wasn't until they felt fairly certain of victory that Downing Street began communicating its importance to the press.

In essence, they heightened the sense of risk surrounding the Tees Valley election, primarily because they were confident of a positive outcome – creating a sense of relief and victory when they eventually succeeded.

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Traditional yet crucial expectation management was evident, and it was clear they were confident in their victory from the start, as demonstrated by Sunak being in neighboring Yorkshire that morning, ready for the celebratory rounds later in the day.

Regardless, Houchen's campaign approach seemed more akin to the charismatic style of Boris Johnson than that of his successor at Number 10. Moreover, the political ideologies of the two – one favoring heavy expenditures, the other fiscal restraint – are markedly distinct. However, for now, these differences are being overlooked.

Sky News forecast: Labour likely to be the biggest party, yet lacking a full majority

Houchen is a compelling speaker in public, despite the skepticism surrounding the financial prudence of the investments in Teesworks and the rationale behind the partnerships formed to advance certain projects.

During my visit to Teesside last month, it was evident that Houchen's achievements went beyond mere party politics.

Discover more at Sky News: Results from local elections: Who emerged victorious? Houchen open to collaboration with Starmer should Tories face defeat in the general election.

He has persuaded many voters of his tangible successes, and Labour's efforts to convince the public that he has not made progress in improving the area have not been very effective.

Yet, despite the apparent victory, a closer examination of the data tells a different tale.

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As we approach the general election, the significant query is what implications Houchen's victory might hold, should it occur.

Houchen secured victory, albeit with a significantly diminished portion of the vote, dropping from an impressive 73% in 2021 to slightly more than 50% in the current election. Labour argues that numerous constituencies—including Darlington, Hartlepool, Redcar, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Stockton West—would revert to Labour under comparable conditions.

Stay informed with the most recent updates from the UK and international stories by tuning into Sky News.

Regardless of Houchen's current comments, it is believed that he privately questions whether Sunak truly deserves much of the acclaim.

The outcome in Tees might have been beneficial for Downing Street today, but it's uncertain if this offers much reassurance to local MPs concerned about the upcoming general election.

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