Could Labour take the Tories’ northern crown of the Tees Valley mayoralty?

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Good morning. Labour has called for an independent investigation into the redevelopment of the Teesside steelworks, a flagship project of the Tories’ northern poster boy Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley mayor. It follows allegations of “corruption” related to the industrial site made in parliament by Labour’s Andy McDonald. Lisa Nandy has written to the head of the National Audit Office to ask the public spending watchdog to undertake an inquiry after more details and controversial claims emerged in the Financial Times in recent days. The Shadow Levelling Up Secretary said the FT’s report “raises very serious questions” and declared: “There must be a comprehensive, independent investigation to ensure the public interest is protected.”

Addressing MPs in April, McDonald alleged that the “only economic growth that is being delivered is being delivered to the accounts of Ben Houchen’s pals”. Responding to the MP for Middlesbrough’s allegations, Houchen said the claims were “untrue” and the work was being “smeared”, while two businessmen mentioned by name by McDonald said they had “nothing to hide” and accused the MP of “an abuse of power”. Houchen has subsequently dismissed Labour’s call for an investigation as “a coordinated attack by the Labour Party to try and undermine and talk Teesside down”.

No wrongdoing has been proved, but if a formal investigation were to be launched and the allegations were found to have any truth to them, it would be a major blow for Houchen personally and for the Conservative Party as a whole, given the Tees Valley mayor’s status as something of a golden boy for the party in the ‘Red Wall’. Houchen was reelected as mayor in 2021 with almost 73% of the vote, securing large majorities in all five of the combined authority areas in a straight head-to-head against Labour’s candidate.

But Labour made gains in the region at this year’s local elections, winning back Middlesbrough council and taking control of its mayoralty, as well as making inroads in Darlington and Hartlepool. Houchen has already been confirmed as the Tory candidate for the next mayoral election in 2024. A dramatic fall from grace for the poster child of the Boris Johnson project would be music to Labour’s ears ahead of that election and the expected general election later next year – and could be a key step towards a more widespread revival for the party in the Red Wall.

In council news following the local elections, local media report new Labour council leaders have been elected in Stafford and East Staffordshire, while North Lanarkshire council’s leader saw off a leadership challenge last night and Basingstoke’s Labour opposition has a new leader. Meanwhile Michael Crick reports Shrewsbury’s selection process will open soon, and in parliament today, Labour’s Richard Burgon will lead a Westminster Hall debate on “greedflation”, urging an economy-wide excess profits tax. And on LabourList this morning, we have an exclusive interview with Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, which you can read in full here. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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