North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Ben Houchen’s parmo populism lives on

The Teesside parmo has come to the House of Commons terrace canteen four years after featuring in Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen’s first election campaign – and has united Labour and Tory MPs in mockery.

Houchen campaigned in 2017 for the delicacy to be given Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, and it gained him headlines: ‘We should be proud of the things we produce, including the world famous parmo’, he told a local paper.

A Labour MP was prompted to comment to this author’s question a year later: ‘It’s a local delicacy, probably about 3,000 calories of pork escallop covered in cheese, deep-fried…best served up after people have had several gallons of beer at 2 o’clock in the morning’ (see Chapter 5 of my thesis here).

A Tory businessman and ally of the mayor came to his defence at the time, replacing mockery by admiration of the way the mayor continued to exploit the parmo in office: ‘The parmo is populist and fun, and he made the Chief Secretary to the Treasury [Liz Truss] eat a parmo in public (laughs) on video…The day he gets Theresa May to eat a parmo I think he’ll have completely succeeded’.

He quickly qualified his description of Houchen’s 2017 campaign as populist by adding: ‘It certainly caught the mood of politics. It wasn’t extreme; it wasn’t populist on things like immigration and race and things like that. It was populist in economic terms though…Ben definitely ran a populist campaign, but populist should not be used as some kind of pejorative statement. Just because it’s populist doesn’t mean it’s wrong’.

The story is significant because it illustrates one strand of Houchen’s approach to politics – a strand which lives on in the reappearance of the parmo as a political symbol – this time in its chicken version in the Commons at the instigation of Stockton South Conservative MP Matt Vickers, who told Northern Agenda the dish would ‘show those in London and Westminster what the north has to offer’.

But another Tees Valley Conservative MP was in line with his Labour counterpart quoted above rather than his fellow Tory. Jacob Young, MP for Redcar, told Northern Agenda: ‘I’m on a health kick at the moment, but I think a parmo is best enjoyed at 11pm after a few beers, rather than on a Wednesday afternoon’.