What is Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen up to? He has been the darling of the Conservative Party and a favoured figure of Prime Minister Boris Johnson since his surprise mayoral victory in 2017 in the previously pretty solid Labour area marked the beginning of the crumbling of the northern red wall.
Yet in an interview in today’s Sun newspaper he offers Johnson advice on several topics – including levelling up – that may be taken as presumptuous at best and as criticism at worst.
‘If we don’t start levelling up and put some superchargers under it pretty quickly — if there is nothing people can tangibly see at the next election — then in places like Teesside it will go back to that same old belief of, ‘You can never trust a Tory’ and they will vote for somebody else’ he told the Sun’s Kate Ferguson.
He had advice bordering on criticism on a number of other areas of policy as well, including tax, energy bills and how to win the next election.
As the Sun says, if there is one person Houchen reminds you of it is Johnson. They are mates and share the same boosterism and rare ability to talk up their country, according to the paper.
So why is Houchen speaking out now in the way he has? The Sun speculates that he may want to become an MP and follow in Johnson’s footsteps. Houchen denies it, and who knows what is in his mind?
Having been re-elected only four months ago for a four-year term which will see him still in office well after the next general election, and with Michael Gove now in charge of a new Department for Levelling Up, it may be that it is Gove and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Chancellor and MP for Richmond, close to Houchen’s domain, whose favour he now regards as more important. Gove and Sunak are both potential candidates for PM should Johnson’s star wane.
One North East business leader told me in 2018 in relation to Houchen’s performance as Tees Valley Mayor: ‘It’s becoming more about the Ben Houchen Show, and what he is trying to build for, for himself, long term rather than genuinely looking to help the wider economy. I hear a number of people saying he won’t meet with people unless he feels that it’s in his interests.’ Perhaps Houchen feels that clinging to Johnson’s coat tails is no longer in his interests.