Will Tees Valley lifeline save Rishi Sunak from sinking?

Ben Houchen’s victory in the Tees Valley mayoral election provides an almost solitary ray of Tory hope after “seismic” election losses for the party.

With hundreds of Conservative councillors losing their seats, failure to win the North Yorkshire mayoralty in Rishi Sunak’s own backyard and the biggest-ever swing against them in a by-election in Blackpool South, things look pretty bleak for the prime minister.

Despite all this, it was noticeable after Lord Houchen gave his victory speech – minus a blue rosette or mention of Mr Sunak – that even Boris Johnson’s most manic cheerleader-in-chief, Nadine Dorries, claimed it would be “madness” to ditch Mr Sunak now.

This may seem odd for a prime minister who is polling worse than Liz Truss at the absolute nadir of her appalling 49-day premiership after her mini-Budget torpedoed the British economy.

Rishi Sunak celebrates victory with Ben Houchen (Owen Humphreys/PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak celebrates victory with Ben Houchen (Owen Humphreys/PA Wire)

Many frustrated Tory councillors and party members will be wondering if the party is simply sleepwalking into the worst general election drubbing in its 346-year history.

But as another Mr Johnson supporter, Dame Andrea Jenkyns, told The Independent, her Conservative MP colleagues are “absolutely paralysed” with fear.

The truth is that they know how ridiculous it would look to change leader again for a third time since winning an 80-seat majority in the 2019 election. For that reason, they set the bar very high before deciding to send in the 52 letters needed for 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady to call a vote of confidence in Mr Sunak.

That bar was well above losing a by-election or even the loss of half their council seats. All eyes were on the two Tory mayors – Lord Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands.

If Houchen had lost after getting almost 80 per cent of the vote in 2021, it would have triggered a stampede for a leadership vote. The fact he held on in a coveted red-wall area is seen as a sign that they can still win.

All eyes will now be on Mr Street’s result on Saturday but the signs are that he too has won.

Keir Starmer celebrates Labour’s by-election win in Blackpool (Getty)
Keir Starmer celebrates Labour’s by-election win in Blackpool (Getty)

Between them, Houchen and Street’s regions cover 51 Tory parliamentary seats. Their victory shows that incumbency can be a winner and stiffen the resolve of MPs facing monumental challenges to hold on.

There are other straws the prime minister and his supporters can hold on to amid the carnage. Most of all, perhaps, in Harlow, where Sir Keir Starmer rather ill-advisedly campaigned saying he needed to win it to win a general election. Labour’s failure to take the council there has boosted flagging Tory hopes.

The reality is that barring a total disaster in the West Midlands this weekend, Mr Sunak is probably leading his party into the next general election.

As he limps on at the head of a divided party, Labour may not be too unhappy over what amounts to a simple postponement of the day of reckoning for the Conservatives.