Tory mayor Ben Houchen bucks the trend on dire night for Rishi Sunak

LONDON — The Conservatives kept hold of a key northern English mayoralty Friday in one of the few brights spots for a party taking a major thumping in local elections.

As results were declared Friday lunchtime, Houchen was re-elected for a third term with 53.6 percent of the vote against Labour’s Chris McEwan on 41.3 percent.

It’s a big drop on Houchen’s decisive 72.8 percent back in 2021 — but victory for a big regional name may calm the nerves of Tory MPs surveying dire local election results across England under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

The Tees Valley mayor is a strong ally of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recorded a video endorsement. His victory back in 2017 and re-election in 2021 was seen as emblematic of the Tories’ ability to win seats in former Labour strongholds dubbed the “Red Wall.” Speaking Friday, Houchen said he was “absolutely humbled” by the result.

The re-elected mayor ran a personal campaign that pushed the Conservative brand to the background.

But Houchen denied distancing himself from Sunak, telling Sky News: “We absolutely don’t shy away from that at all, and Rishi’s been up during the campaign and we have always said Rishi’s been a great friend to the people of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.”

Sunak will ‘go on’

The results come amid poor local election results for Sunak’s party across England.

By early afternoon Friday, the Tories had shed more than 100 councilors and lost key former strongholds including Rushmoor and Redditch. Labour gained dozens of councilors and retook councils including Thurrock and Hartlepool, the latter of which is located in the Tees Valley.

With Conservative rebels already considering a move against Sunak, all eyes will now be on the Conservative Mayor Andy Street, who is fighting to hold off a Labour challenge in the West Midlands. That result will be declared Saturday afternoon.

Sunak loyalists were talking up his prospects of weathering the storm Friday, and there is no clear candidate to replace him.

Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden told Times Radio: “The prime minister is going to go on and lead the Conservative Party into the general election. There’s no doubt about that.”

Grumbling continues from Tories convinced only a change of leader will avoid electoral annihilation at the next general election. Former Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman said Sunak “must step aside now and go to California,” quipping that he’d be better off in a career in Silicon Valley.

But Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns, who has called on Sunak to go, admitted she didn’t think fellow parliamentarians would move against the prime minister so close to an election. Speaking to Radio 4, she said: “I’m not sure that colleagues are going to be putting letters in, so we’re working with what we’ve got.”