As local elections loom, are the Conservatives missing Boris Johnson?

Is Boris Johnson's style of politics still alive and well in parts of the country?

Travel 250 miles from London to the Tees Valley in the North East, and a big personality mayor rules the roost in a familiar manner.

Tory Ben Houchen is someone who appears to reach over party lines for support but is loathed by political enemies to an unusual degree.

A politician who has been damned for a lack of transparency and the way he makes decisions, but opponents struggle to make accusations stick with the public.

A lover of massive infrastructure promises - tunnels, just like Johnson - that seem at best improbable. Someone who understands social media better than most of his contemporaries.

Could the political style and approach of Boris Johnson be helping Houchen, who Johnson put in the House of Lords, retain his mayoralty in the traditional heartland of Tees Valley for a third time despite the collapse of Tory support in the rest of the country?

At this point, the Tees Valley contest seems Houchen's to lose.

He won 73% of the vote when he was re-elected in 2021. At the time of writing, many think he's got a good chance of holding on, including Labour campaign figures, some in the Labour leader's office, Number 10 and CCHQ campaign team, and the Tory rebels evaluating whether to oust Rishi Sunak.

Some think a Houchen defeat would be the most likely trigger of a proper effort to oust Sunak.

Yet one of the reasons Sunak talked up Houchen's campaign to Sky News' Trevor Philips this weekend was the expectation that Houchen would be announced the winner on Friday when the Tees Valley result comes in.

Sky News went to Hartlepool in the Tees Valley, and heard from a range of voters and their views of the Tories.

In many cases, they were damning about the party and its leader Sunak. They told us that while Houchen was a "leader", they "don't think Rishi Sunak [...] has proved that to anybody". They praised Houchen for bringing investment to the area and said he got things done.

People who said they would "never" vote Tory said they were likely to back Houchen. Some who had heard about the controversies around Teesworks, the regeneration project of the former Redcar Steelworks site, still indicated they would give him their support.

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Teesworks became controversial after questions were raised over the development of the new freeport, which Houchen championed as mayor.

Private companies ended up owning 90% of the shares, even though hundreds of millions of taxpayer cash was pumped into the project. An inquiry later found no evidence of "corruption or illegality" at the Teesworks site but did raise concerns over "transparency and oversight".

The presence of a big personality seemed to reassure the people of Tees Valley their views would be represented, even if they did not think the same of Sunak.

The parallels run deep - Houchen has promised a scoping review to see if there could be a tunnel from Hartlepool to Redcar, underneath the river and the port - a 12-mile project bigger than any in the UK which is likely to cost in the billions in the unlikely event it gets the go-ahead.

The scale of the ambition appears to inspire, even if few think it will ever emerge in practice. It is Johnson-politics to its core.

Down the other end of the "red wall", the by-election in Blackpool South looks lost to the Tories, according to many we talked to.

Again, the presumption in Westminster in the various leaders' offices is that it turns Labour - a seat won on the coattails of Johnson in 2019 now an emblem of the red wall returning home. With Johnson gone, so too are the Tory dreams of holding on to it.

Read more:
The Tories are expecting a pounding on Thursday, but could Labour have the harder job?
Sunak needs to learn voters aren't always governed by the logic of the computer

Some of those we spoke to in the games arcade on the seafront missed the big Johnson personality in their politics. The more technocrat approach of Sunak is not appearing to give them much sense of figures fighting for their future.

Thursday will be a moment of reckoning for all parties. But one unfashionable question that might be asked in the aftermath is: are the Tories missing Boris Johnson?

Full list of candidates for the Tees Valley mayor election and Blackpool South by-election

Tees Valley: Ben Houchen (Conservative), Chris McEwan (Labour), Simon Thorley (Lib Dems)

Blackpool South: Stephen Black (Independent), Mark Anthony Butcher (Reform UK), Andrew Kevin Cregan (Lib Dems), Howling Laud Hope (The Official Monster Raving Loony Party), David Jones (Conservative), Kim Sherrie Knight (Alliance for Democracy and Freedom), Damon Lee Sharp (NonPol), Ben Thomas (Green), Chris Webb (Labour)