After Thatcherism and Corbynism, welcome to Houchenism, the doctrine of Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, and endorsed by a whopping 73% of Teesside voters. This 34-year-old northern loyalist is the Tory party’s contemporary version of Michael Heseltine, the lone standard bearer at Thatcher’s zenith of a willingness to intervene “at breakfast, lunch and supper”. Houchen is today’s Tory carrying the Heseltine torch, intervening to reinvent Teesside with the massive backing of his electorate. And a generation later, this Heseltine de nos jours has the backing, not the loathing, of the prime minister. It will not have escaped Boris Johnson’s notice, a self-described Brexity Hezza, that Houchen’s intervention is working big time, economically and politically.
This do-it-if-it-works local Tory politician is reinventing the Conservative party as it attempts to deliver on its promise to level up. The string of initiatives Houchen has launched encompasses the ideological spectrum. Nationalisation? If that is the only way to keep and expand Teesside International Airport, of course, even if details of the public financing remain opaque. A free port for Teesside as a deregulatory free-for-all? Of course, if that means jobs and inward investment for his area.
A green new deal? He is on it, proclaiming that a green industrial revolution is the avenue to hi-tech, well-paid, 21st-century jobs. Thus he has instigated the Net Zero Industry Innovation Centre, attracting the establishment of the National Hydrogen Transport Centre in partnership with Teesside University with the aim of making Teesside the UK’s hydrogen manufacturing hub. Wind farms? He is on them too, creating the Teesworks Offshore Manufacturing Centre, in which GE Renewable Energy has just announced it will create a plant to build state-of-the-art wind turbine blades. What Houchen is doing is a textbook example of a “super-cluster”, turning Teesside into a self-reinforcing virtuous circle of complementary industries in a public-private partnership, supported by the local university and FE colleges.
OK, he has been backed to the hilt by Johnson, who insisted that his free-market-inclined chancellor and business secretary get with the programme, abandon their throwback, dead-end Thatcherism and write the cheques that make it all possible. There was general bafflement when Rishi Sunak announced that 750 Treasury jobs were going to Darlington and not the obvious centre in the north, Leeds. That missed the point. Darlington is part of Teesside and Houchen was being obliged.
Teesside voters, and that includes Hartlepool, have noticed. They like what they see. It has imagination, verve and a vision. Of course they backed it on Thursday. Yes, it is true that the Blair government established One North East – one of the more dynamic regional development agencies that, for example, laid the foundations of the North East Technology Park (NETPark) in Durham, where a space innovation centre is to be based – and which the coalition government criminally abolished in 2010. But Blair as a Sedgefield MP and Peter Mandelson as a Hartlepool MP abjured the kind of aggressive activism of Houchen, only becoming converts at the last. For as Teesside voters note, unlike them, Houchen was born locally, took his law degree at Northumbria University and cares passionately for where he lives and works.
Equally, Labour’s left, which has been urging Starmer and his shadow cabinet to adopt a leftwing vision to recapture Labour’s red wall, embrace Brexit and fight the same old Tories with good, old-fashioned socialism, should take note. Whatever else, Ben Houchen is not a same old Tory, nor is any variant of socialism likely to appeal to Teesside voters who are watching a different alchemy deliver both a vision for the future and jobs alike. Houchenism is a threat to Thatcherites, Blairites and Corbynites alike. It could even win 73% of the vote across Britain.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist