In late 2012, a 25-year-old Conservative stood for Parliament in Middlesbrough. It was a fairly embarrassing performance, even against expectations. The trainee solicitor had only become a councillor the year before, and he quickly got into hot water for misspelling the town’s name in his campaign materials. The Tories came a distant fourth, with a swing of −12.5% and their fewest votes in the seat ever.
Nine years later, Ben Houchen is now lionised as one of the “most influential Conservatives”, and “the most popular politician in the country”. He’s been hailed as the “first blue brick in the red wall”, helping usher in six new Tory MPs across the Tees Valley’s eight constituencies, including recently in Hartlepool.
Much has been made of how Houchen first became Tees Valley Metro Mayor. Partly it was luck; he won by 0.5% of the vote in an election with just 21.1% turnout, the lowest of six 2017 mayoral elections. Partly it was good timing; his campaign was able to capitalise on Labour’s collapse and Teesside’s changing demographics and emergence as a post-Brexit bellwether region. Partly it was good branding; in the five years since Middlesbrough, he’d repackaged himself as a leadership figure. He’d become leader of Stockton’s opposition Conservative Group in 2014, despite criticism from some local Tories about his inexperience.
He’d suddenly gained business experience in 2015, working as a consultant for Richard Upshall, a Dubai-based businessman later implicated in tax fraud; Upshall helped him gain a name as a CEO in 2016, and at the end of the year he was selected as the mayoral candidate. His campaign, as Jonn Elledge described, had “limited engagement with the realities of being mayor, but a load of eye-catching policy announcements”. Houchen pledged to build a new town, secure protected status for the parmo, scrap and replace Cleveland Police, and buy the loss-making Durham Tees Valley Airport.
It’s what he’s done as Mayor, however, that has garnered the most attention. In sad news for parmo lovers, Houchen ditched most of his 2017 pledges, focusing instead on one: the airport. By December 2018, he’d agreed a £40m deal to “take back control of our airport”. The Guardian called him an “interventionist“ who “encompasses the ideological spectrum”; the New Statesman said he was “emblematic” of “New Toryism”. “Houchen has created his own brand of Conservatism!” shouted The Spectator. Even Tribune called it a “success story of state intervention”.
Houchen has been keen to lean into this image as an ideological independent, describing himself as “project focussed rather than politics focussed”. It’s an image which helped him win a 72.8% landslide earlier this year.
This all amounts to a very promising career from someone who is just 34 years old, and it brings about the unavoidable question: just what does this so-called “new brand of Conservatism” mean?
“People care about themselves.” (2012)
So wrote the young by-election candidate in a now-deleted blog post. He called for a “Conservative job creation plan” to “demonstrate” the Tories’ commitment to jobs. The policies he proposed might not have been vote-winners: “the de-regulation of the labour market”, “regionalised pay” and the “principles which saved Britain in the 80s”. But the message was the same one he would later use in 2018: “People will ultimately vote for jobs.”
Houchen’s fundamental belief is that job creation doesn’t come from the state but from the global free market. He’s even been accused of trying to sink local businesses to offer low-tax land to international ones.
“It’s all about the message being relentlessly positive.” (2018)
Ben Houchen loves PR. He has the highest Facebook ad spend of any British politician. He’s got both an external PR agency and an internal twelve-strong comms team, some hired directly from the local press (and vice-versa). A Centre for Cities survey just before this year’s mayoral elections found that almost half of residents know him, behind only Burnham and Khan. His Facebook ads mainly shout about jobs – 7,600 in the airport! 20,000 in the Freeport! 1,250 in the civil service!
His supporters say that he is ‘talking Teesside up’ – almost willing jobs into existence by attracting inward investment. His critics argue that he’s promoting only himself – that the jobs are empty promises, and he’s avoiding the real issues. It’s a fine line between salesman and conman.
“The naysayers keep talking us down.” (2020)
There were a huge number of headlines when the airport was brought back into public ownership, but not many a month later when a 25% stake was sold off to private firm Stobart Aviation. The airport then ran as a public-private partnership, the main benefit apparently being an extraordinarily opaque scrutiny system which isn’t subject to FOI. In July, Stobart mysteriously pulled out, two years into a ten-year plan, but their 25% has been kept in a private charitable trust which maintains the secrecy. The public are still paying; £85m of public money has so far been spent to keep running the airport, which is currently losing £2.6m a year and isn’t expected to be profitable for at least another six. But there’s no public oversight. This means that few questions have been asked when multiple public sector contracts have been awarded to Conservative donors in the airport and elsewhere in the authority. Whether the actual business will ‘take off’ remains to be seen.
So far, when the Mayor has had to choose between good news and good jobs, the PR wins. The employment rate on Teesside remains around 70%, the lowest in England. It’s roughly the same as it was in 2016/7, and the same as a decade before that. Full-time employment has actually gone down. The number of people claiming unemployment benefits has gone up and was rising even before COVID. Productivity has fallen to its lowest since 2004. In March, the government made a handy pre-election announcement of 1,250 existing civil service jobs relocating to Darlington – but 900 local civil service jobs were already cut in 2017, not to mention the 7,500 wider public sector jobs and 4,000 local steel jobs to disappear in the six years before that.
It’s not too dissimilar to Boris Johnson’s approach as Mayor, or even as Prime Minister. Contracts for donors; millions spent on failing projects; a massive PR operation; limited accountability; blind faith in the free market. This ‘new brand of Conservatism’ feels pretty similar to the existing one. The strategy pays electoral dividends; the problem is, eventually voters will start to notice that the numbers don’t quite add up. If he isn’t careful, the airport mayor may well run out of runway.
This article is part of The Social Review’s series on Metro Mayors and Local Government, with a commitment to publish at least one article a month on the subject – but we want as many as possible. If you have an idea for an article, please read our pitching guidelines and send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org