Ben Houchen's win in Tees Valley not necessarily a comfort to local Tory MPs

In the days running up to the elections, Number 10 was verging on the unsubtle. 

Senior Downing Street figures were conceding that should Ben Houchen lose the mayoralty of the Tees Valley Combined Authority to Labour, there would be a challenge to Rishi Sunak. At that point they would be unable to stem the tide of letters sufficient to trigger a vote of no confidence.

In turn, this might have triggered an unwanted and catastrophic early election.

This is unusual behaviour - for the prime minister's closest allies to be openly speculating on his survivability - yet it is a sign of the turbulence of politics of the moment.

There was method in their madness.

By the final week of the campaign, the survival of Houchen had become existential for Sunak - but Number 10 only started to message this to the media after the point at which they were pretty confident that they would win.

In other words, they built up jeopardy around the Tees Valley race only in the strong expectation that it would be okay - and it would feel like a relief when they won.

Classic but much needed expectation management, but the fact they knew they would win all along could be seen from the way Sunak himself was just next door in Yorkshire in the morning, all primed for the victory lap later in the day.

So no matter Houchen was running a campaign in a style more reminiscent of the personality-based Boris Johnson than his successor in Number 10. And no matter the brand of politics of the two men - big spending versus fiscal conservatism - is as different as you can get. For the moment, this will be glossed over.

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Houchen is an impressive public performer, however much doubt there is about the wisdom over the investment decisions around Teesworks and the sense in the partnerships struck to make some of the projects go ahead.

When I went to Teesside last month, it was clear that Houchen's success transcended the party.

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He has convinced a large chunk of the electorate he has concrete achievements, and Labour's attempts to tell people that he's failed to level up the area wasn't cutting much mustard.

But despite the headline win the story beneath the bonnet, from the numbers, paints its own picture.

For the bigger question ahead of the general election, is what Houchen's win means if there was one.

While Houchen did win, he did so on a considerably reduced share of the vote, down from an exceptional 73% in 2021 to just over 50% today. Labour say that many of the seats - Darlington, Hartlepool, Redcar, Middlesbrough South and East, Cleveland and Stockton West - would fall back to Labour if there was any similarity.

No matter what Houchen is saying today, he is thought to have personal doubts on whether Sunak can take much of the credit.

It may have helped Number 10 today, but whether the Tees result is much comfort for MPs in the region worried about the general election is less clear.