by Will Lloyd
Monday, 4
October 2021

Ben Houchen understands ‘Johnsonism’ better than Boris

He reminded me of a cross between Michael Heseltine and Leon Trotsky
by Will Lloyd
Teesside mayor Ben Houchen

Boris Johnson might struggle to explain what ‘Johnsonism’ is. Ben Houchen doesn’t.

The Tees Valley mayor was returned to power in May with 73% of the vote on the same day the Conservatives won the Hartlepool by-election. Houchen was instantly tagged as “the most popular politician in the country”

Here at the Tory conference in Manchester, I watched Houchen as he was trailed and followed around like a rising Cabinet minister. His authority is not simply derived from winning popularity contests though. Houchen is emblematic.

If we are watching the creation of a new Conservatism — a salvaging, modernising, updating, Northern and radically green Conservatism — then it is embodied by Geordie Houchen. In an interview with UnHerd earlier this year, the mayor went so far as to say that “Teesside will be one of the world’s centres for low carbon green technologies and become synonymous with Silicon Valley in the US.”

If any of Johnson’s slogan-heavy agenda is actually going to work — from ‘levelling up’ to ‘net zero’ — then the answer will be found in Houchen’s Tees Valley. There, Houchen is forcing the public and private sector to work together. He is buying land, commissioning infrastructure and borrowing for investment. There are mutters about pork barrel politics, but this is surely an improvement on the North East’s past role in national politics — a vote bank for complacent Labour MPs.

When Houchen spoke at a fringe event last night about “the Green Northern Powerhouse” he reminded me of a cross between Michael Heseltine and Leon Trotsky. I was surprised by how poetic Houchen was. His green vision was radiant. The old industrial heartlands would be restored, hives of manufacturing and growth once more. England’s junked and rusting heritage would be recycled and home again to the next great revolution in technology and business.

History, Houchen said, was “coming full circle.” And he was making the circle turn, with his cajoling and organising. He could — perhaps deserved to — gloat about the return of cable manufacturing to Hartlepool and plans in Redcar for an enormous carbon capture project.

And then the bit that made it ‘Johnsonism.’ Even better for this room of Conservatives than all the jobs, and all the levelling up, was what Houchen said next: “we don’t have to compromise our ideology or our principles to do any of this.” Everybody would have their cake, and eat it.

Join the discussion

  • It’s always amusing that Labour, when confronted with an apparently unassailable opponent like Thatcher or Johnson, spends years trying to position the right anti-Thatcher or anti-Johnson stuffed dummy with the right rhetoric.
    They are then completely wrong-footed when the Tories switch leader on them.
    The same is likely to happen again; Johnson will eventually be concluded to be a liability and will be eased out in favour of someone like Sunak or Mr. Houchen just as Labour manoeuvres some clown like Khan or Burnham into position as the perfect anti-Boris candidate.

  • Very good point. I thought until a few weeks ago that Boris would go of his own accord early next year, exhausted by the workload of the last couple of years. But having watched an interview with him over the weekend, he seems to thrive on the challenges and the criticism, so, as you say, will have to be eased out.

  • Why ease him out? The polls are still positive despite everything that’s been thrown at this government. Boris without the millstones of Brexit and Covid might turn out to be the engine that is needed. I think it is easy to underestimate him and that’s why he confounds his critics.

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