Amid a calamitous set of local election defeats for the Tories, Ben Houchen has offered Rishi Sunak a lifeline. 

The high-profile, Tory Tees Valley mayor has secured a third term in power, albeit with a reduced majority. 

Houchen won 53.6 per cent of the vote – a significant drop from his stonking victory under a Boris-led Conservative government in 2021 when he was re-elected with 72.8 per cent of the vote. Even so, he was still more than 12 percentage points clear of his rival, Labour’s Chris McEwan, defying one recent poll which no doubt gave Sunak a sleepless night or two by putting the two neck and neck.

“I just want to thank everybody. It’s a really humbling experience,” said Houchen this afternoon, basking in his ability to buck the Tory trend and secure a win.

“This has been a very difficult few months, it has been a really hard campaign, there has been a lot of spotlight on this election which brings a level of intensity,” he added. 

The Conservatives will be shouting loudly about this particular mayoral result today. Since there is little else to celebrate. 

All other local election results are pointing to a conclusion that the national polls have long supported: Keir Starmer is heading for Downing Street. 

According to the overnight counts, the Conservatives have lost half of the council seats they were defending. Meanwhile, Labour is celebrating regaining control of key council targets including Hartlepool, Thurrock, Rushmoor and Redditch. 

Even more devastatingly for Sunak, Labour has won the Blackpool by-election with a swing of 26.3 per cent from the Conservatives – the third biggest swing to Labour at a by-election since the Second World War. 

“We’re looking at certainly one of the worst, if not the worst, Conservative performance in local government elections for the last 40 years,” remarked polling guru John Curtice today.  

Against this backdrop, Houchen hanging on in there provides some much-needed relief. Indeed, a defeat for the charismatic northerner would have been the biggest local election calamity of all. Houchen – who secured a shock victory in the red-wall area of Tees Valley, covering North Yorkshire and County Durham, back in 2017 – has become a poster boy for the government’s levelling up agenda. 

But how much credit can Sunak really take for Houchen’s re-election? 

This afternoon, when pressed on the glaring omissions in the mayor’s campaign materials to both Rishi Sunak and the Conservative party more generally, Andrea Leadsom, MP for South Northamptonshire, insisted that Houchen’s victory is a “testament to the Conservative government”.

An unconvincing assertion. Indeed, polling conducted during the Tees Valley mayoral campaign revealed that, when locals were asked how they would vote in a general election, the support for the Conservative party was roughly 21 per cent below the figure recorded for Houchen himself.

Houchen’s victory is a testament to his personal popularity and efforts to improve Teesside’s economy. We are under no illusion: he has won not because of Sunak’s Tory Party but, rather, in spite of it. 

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