Houchen could ‘absolutely’ work with Starmer and ‘forgot’ blue Tory rosette

Houchen could ‘absolutely’ work with Starmer and ‘forgot’ blue Tory rosette

Ben Houchen said he could “absolutely” work with Sir Keir Starmer if the Labour leader becomes prime minister, but denied “trying to pretend” he was not Conservative during his mayoral election campaign.

The winning Tory candidate in the Tees Valley contest appeared to praise the Opposition’s position on devolution, saying it would give him “more autonomy” after his victory on Friday.

But he said “people know round here I’m a Conservative” when asked about apparent efforts to distance himself from the Tory Party brand and instead run on a highly personal platform.

Lord Houchen was the only candidate on stage not to wear a party rosette at the Tees Valley count, saying later he “forgot”.

“I have done at previous elections and the honest answer is I didn’t have one and I forgot it. But I’ve got my blue socks on and my blue tie on,” he told Sky News.

“The idea that we are trying to pretend I’m not Conservative, I mean people know round here that I’m a Conservative, but thankfully what we’ve seen today is they also know that I’m a Teessider, and I’ll put Teesside first, I’ll put local people first and I’ll do what’s best for the local area.”

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(PA Graphics)

Lord Houchen was re-elected mayor of the Tees Valley region but saw his majority over Labour dramatically reduce, securing almost 82,000 votes compared with the 63,000 votes received by Labour’s Chris McEwan.

In a speech on Friday which included no reference to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak or the Conservative Party, he said victory was “the greatest honour anyone could give me”.

Thanking his supporters and his opponents, he said: “Let’s keep pushing for a better Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool, let’s deliver more jobs, more investment.”

Lord Houchen later appeared with the prime minister in Teesside and thanked him for his support, saying: “I could not have delivered the things we’ve delivered in this region without you, prime minister.”

Mr Sunak said Houchen’s re-election was evidence of “the Conservatives delivering” and “levelling-up in action”.

The prime minister said that the people of Teesside “knew it was Ben and the Conservatives that delivered for them and they stuck with you at this election. And I know that come the general election, they’re going to stick with us too.”

Labour had already conceded defeat, but said the party had secured a large enough swing to win every parliamentary seat in the region and claimed Lord Houchen had run his campaign as a “pseudo-independent”.

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Lord Houchen (left) shakes hands with Labour Party candidate Chris McEwan (Owen Humphreys/PA)

A Labour spokesman said: “If Rishi Sunak doesn’t take this result as a major wake-up call he is in denial.”

The mayor denied he had not been campaigning as a Conservative or mentioning Mr Sunak in his campaign literature during the contest.

He said “Rishi’s been a huge supporter of Teesside over the last few years” and that the campaign had been a “shared effort.”

“We wouldn’t have been able to deliver all these things if it weren’t for him so absolutely it’s a shared effort, but again I’ll work with anybody who will help me deliver for local people and Rishi is doing just that.”

He said he would work with anyone “to get what I need to get”, including Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer if he became prime minister.

Lord Houchen secured 81,930 votes, or 53.6% of the total, against 63,141 (41.3%) for Mr McEwan and 7,679 (5%) for Liberal Democrat Simon Thorley.

Although the mayor secured a comfortable majority of 12.3%, this is considerably lower than the 45.5% majority he won over Labour in 2021.

Other results from the Tees Valley region were less positive for the Conservatives, with the party losing six councillors in Hartlepool as Labour made seven gains and took control of the council.