Lord Houchen’s comments show Rishi Sunak is doomed - Andrew Vine

I’d give a lot to be a fly on the wall the next time that Rishi Sunak and the Tees Valley Mayor, Baron Houchen of High Leven, have a talk. Of course, it may be an entirely cordial conversation in which the Prime Minister and the mayor mull over how to hang on to the votes of people in the north, who hold such sway over whether the Conservatives win this year’s election.

Then again, it may not be at all cordial, given Lord Houchen’s assessment last week that the Conservatives are in chaos and the ultimate responsibility for that rests with Mr Sunak.

Either way, it would be a fascinating exchange on which to eavesdrop, given that one of the participants is the only person the Conservatives have who is a proven winner and the other increasingly looks like being doomed to be one of the party’s greatest losers.

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The Prime Minister could be forgiven for feeling that with friends like Lord Houchen, he really doesn’t need to go looking for enemies.

Lord Ben Houchen with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Teesside following his re-election as Tees Valley Mayor. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA WireLord Ben Houchen with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Teesside following his re-election as Tees Valley Mayor. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Lord Ben Houchen with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Teesside following his re-election as Tees Valley Mayor. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Amid the dismal litany of local election losses, when Lord Houchen’s victory was the sole bright spot for his party, he somehow neglected to wear a blue rosette while making his acceptance speech and there had been barely a mention of Mr Sunak during his campaign.

And though Lord Houchen paid tribute to the Prime Minister when he arrived in the Tees Valley to celebrate the win, the visit didn’t give off the vibe of two politicians in accord as they faced the uphill struggle to keep the Conservatives in office.

If there is any strain between them, it can’t have been helped by last week’s Radio Tees interview with Mr Houchen, in which he said: “Things don’t look great for the Conservative Party at the moment … There is still a way through but that way through is getting narrower by the day.”

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He added that elements of the party were “fighting like rats in a sack”.

And when he was asked if Rishi Sunak was to blame, the mayor replied: “Ultimately it always rests on the shoulders of the leader, all responsibility goes back to the top, it’s the same in my job as well. Ultimately, you’re the one responsible for it.

“But there are lots of people who are involved in the problems with the Conservative party. It’s a bit of chaos at the minute, right, isn’t it?”

There will be many within Lord Houchen’s party who agree with him, along with many more counting the days until they see the back of the Government.

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To his credit, Lord Houchen was doing what many in the Cabinet consistently fail to do – giving a straight answer to a question and not making a futile attempt to gloss over what is obvious to everybody.

But it was less than helpful to Mr Sunak, especially coming on the same day that an opinion poll put Labour’s lead over the Tories at 30 points – the widest margin since Liz Truss’s premiership imploded when the financial markets were spooked by her disastrous budget in October 2022.

That’s not a comparison any Tory leader would relish, but the state of the polls and the intervention of such a significant figure as Lord Houchen to point the finger at Mr Sunak underline the trouble he’s in.

The two men should be natural allies – a Yorkshire MP and a northern mayor, and the willingness of the voters of Tees Valley to give their support to a Conservative ought to be pointing the way towards a strategy for the party to hang on to the red wall seats it won in 2019.

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But it isn’t. Tees Valley was an outlier, less a vote for the Conservatives than for an individual, and does nothing to dispel the public’s impression of a fractious and fragmented party which seems more preoccupied with infighting and dogma than running the country.

Lord Houchen’s assessment of his party and Mr Sunak’s responsibility for the state it is in reinforces the image of the Prime Minister as a hapless figure who is not in control of events.

Even if the much-vaunted flights full of immigrants to Rwanda get off the ground over the summer, and aren’t stymied by legal wrangling, that in itself won’t persuade vast numbers of voters to put their trust in Mr Sunak for another term in office after everything that has happened.

A budget giveaway on national insurance hasn’t shifted the opinion polls and even if there is a last-gasp bribe in an autumn statement by the Chancellor – such as a cut in stamp duty – that may not be enough to avoid defeat either.

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Lord Houchen is right – his party is in chaos and the responsibility of sorting it out lies with his near-neighbour, Mr Sunak. But whether viewed from the perspective of the Tees Valley or anywhere else, how or even if he can do so is far from certain.

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