by Will Lloyd
Monday, 4
October 2021
Dispatch
10:45

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.

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
7 months ago

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.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
7 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

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.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
7 months ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

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.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
7 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

The fact that others are jockeying for his job is a sign of confidence in the next few election results. Sunak et al wouldn’t be doing this if the next one wasn’t in the bag.
Johnson is an extraordinary figure actually. He won the mayoralty twice in a Labour city, he won the leadership of a Remainer party, as a minority party he won (in effect) the next two general elections, and in so doing, he got rid of the Remainers at the same time. Yet people continue to underestimate him.
There’ll come a time when he’s no longer an electoral asset, but I would not be surprised if he chose his own time of departure. I don’t really see a defenestration happening.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
7 months ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

It’s the flaw with a lot of counterfactual history, GA (and in my view, with Ed West’s pessimism about Conservatives’ future).
So, for example, what if Germany had built lots of U-Boats instead of useless battleships? They’d have won the battle of the Atlantic for sure, wouldn’t they? Well, yes – if Britain had eccentrically built the battleships we built to oppose German ones, even though there weren’t any. In any sensible counterfactual, had Germany built U-boats, we’d have built something else, too: escorts and small aircraft carriers instead. And still won.
It’s the same here. The Conservatives aren’t going to be The Boris Johnson Show forever. Just as the steely Thatcher was succeeded by the affable, impossible-to-hate John Major, likewise, just as some supposedly authentically proley Labour leader rocks up to unseat the Eton toff, up will pop Houchen – or someone like him.
It’s been said that Labour always picks the obvious candidate. This actually means that Labour has the tougher job, because while it’s obvious that Khan or Burnham will be the next Labour leader, it’s not at all obvious who the next Conservative leader will be – but Labour will be picking theirs first.

Last edited 7 months ago by Jon Redman
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
7 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

John Major ‘ the grey man ‘ turned out to be the most dangerous of all. He took us into the EU without a referendum, stabbed Maggie in the back and shagged EDWINA CURRIE.

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
7 months ago

Houchen understands the local area in which he operates, that is undoubted. Whether this translates to the national scene would be interesting to find out. He is definitely not afraid to put his head above the proverbial parapet, and the local “opposition” can do nothing but object to all his ideas, while offering nothing themselves, which sounds like the rest of the UK in microcosm.