Meet Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor who’d have Mrs Thatcher spluttering into her tea

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‘What we’re trying to say to young people is: “Look, if you want to fight climate change, if you want to give back to the world, you want to make sure that we’ve got a more sustainable society that’s affordable, that we’ve got a bright future, you want to move to Teesside, you want to stay in Teesside.”’ 

It’s a vision almost perfectly aligned with Boris Johnson’s. Hi-tech, high-wage, high-skill work that should make a deprived area a magnet for talent and investment.

If all this makes Houchen sound like an untouchable Tory messiah, blazing a trail to a new kind of politics that others can’t, it shouldn’t. He fully admits that in many ways his job is an easy one. 

He gets all the glory of spending public money and donning the hard-hat, hi-vis jacket combo, with none of the downsides that come from being whipped to vote for austerity measures or wade into rows about sleaze. ‘It does give you a freedom that, in all honesty, no MP could ever possibly have,’ he says.

Such freedom allowed Houchen to oppose the end of the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit and the end of free school meals during holidays. And last week, he launched a surprising attack on the PM, warning him to ‘focus’ on levelling up and deliver concrete progress, or risk losing the Red Wall.

As Houchen himself puts it, being the mayor automatically brings with it a certain level of goodwill. ‘People see you as the mayor first and a politician second, whereas with MPs it’s the other way around.’

A brief stroll around Middlesbrough confirms that sentiment. Ian, a friendly, middle-aged shopper, puts it this way: ‘To me, regardless who’s in, they’re as bad as each other. As long as someone like Ben is going out there and getting this town back on its feet again, all good for him.’

And, as Houchen readily admits, being a regional mayor is hardly grounds for intense scrutiny from the media. ‘There is a liberalisation to that.’

What about Andy Burnham, though? The Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester has arguably used his platform more successfully than any other regional politician to build a national profile. 

Certainly more so than Houchen, who can still wander around Yarm unrecognised. Burnham’s defiance of the Prime Minister over local lockdowns saw him dominate the national news. Along with Sadiq Khan in London, it raises the possibility that Britain’s mayors might present the future leadership of national politics.

Houchen, however, is having none of it. While he concedes that Burnham offers an alternative model for a mayoralty, as ‘the convener of a voice on behalf of his region’, which has made him popular, that shouldn’t distract from the reality, as Houchen sees it, that ‘he hasn’t delivered on anything in his original 2017 manifesto’.

As to his own model, Houchen says the key to it has been delivering on his promises – like the airport, for example. ‘It gave the Conservative Party a chance to say this is what you can do when you elect a Conservative politician.’ 

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