WITH absolutely apocalyptic economic figures being released on polling day, with cost-of-living squeezing every family eye-wateringly tight, with the Prime Minister fined for his law-breaking, with a Tory MP caught watching tractor porn in the Commons, with Hartlepool candidates pleading with voters not to punish “local Conservatives for the mistakes made in Westminster”, Tories might have been expecting a mid-term drubbing in Thursday’s local elections.

And in some parts of the country they received it.

In London, Labour made truly historic gains. Over the Pennines, the new Cumberland council, which covers an area which elected three Conservative MPs, was won convincingly by Labour with Carlisle Tories calling on Mr Johnson to quit. In Scotland, the Tories slumped to third place.

Even in normally ultra-loyal North Yorkshire, the Conservatives only just scraped over the line, winning control of the new unitary authority by one seat as the LibDems ate into their heartlands like Harrogate.

But in the North East, there was not such a harsh judgement delivered on Mr Johnson. The Tories lost the odd seat in Sunderland, Newcastle and South Tyneside, but they gained two in Hartlepool.

Some thought that when Mr Johnson won the Hartlepool by-election in 2021, it represented a high watermark for him, but, judging by yesterday’s results, the tide is not yet going out on him.

The Northern Echo: Boris Johnson in Hartlepool to meet Jill Mortimer Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT.

Boris Johnson in Hartlepool with the new MP Jill Mortimer the day after the 2020 by-election. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT


Indeed, in other “red wall” northern towns, like Bolton, Wigan and Burnley, the Tories also picked up a couple of seats.

The Brexit divide of Britain is remaining, perhaps deepening. The red wall places that took the plunge in 2019 and voted for Mr Johnson after decades of Labour dominance continue to give him the benefit of the doubt whereas in the south, whole shires, which never fully embraced him, have turned their backs.

The red wall areas still like the levelling up message, and the promise of spending that goes with it. A week before polling day, the Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen announced that Hartlepool was going to get a Mayoral Development Company to rejuvenate its town centre, which sounds like levelling up in action.

The divide is also shown in Labour’s performance. London clearly loves Keir Starmer, where Labour made great gains in Westminster and Wandsworth, but the traditional northern areas, where a spade is still a spade and a woman is a woman, have yet to warm to him.

There were only a few elections in the North East, so perhaps it is dangerous to extrapolate too much from them. How do you account for the good voters of Hartlepool re-electing a councillor who is currently suspended from the Conservative Party after he pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman?

If you still persist in trying to paint a bigger picture, the two recent Labour council by-election wins in Ferryhill and West Auckland – both in seats won by Conservative MPs in 2019 – must also feature on the canvas.

So that bigger picture will be very mixed. Labour broadly did well as it rebuilds after Jeremy Corbyn – “First results day in years I haven’t wanted to crawl back under the duvet”, tweeted Lady Chapman of Darlington who is firmly in the Starmer camp – but because it has yet to reconnect with the soul of its former heartlands, it is not on course to win the next election outright.

There are splodges of yellow on the canvas as the LibDems had successes to crow about but they – and the Greens – are largely seen as protest votes against the main parties.

And the bigger picture shows that the Conservatives covered in purple bruises as they took a mid-term drubbing but, thanks largely to northern voters, not a devastating one. These elections were highlighted as one of the moments of danger for Mr Johnson. They won’t relieve the pressure on his leadership, but he lurches on as the cost of living crisis bites.

If Durham police were to decide there is any truth in the stories of rule-breaking by 30 or more people at Mr Starmer’s “beergate” gathering at the miners’ hall, the Labour leader could find himself laid as low as the other pretender to Mr Johnson’s crown, the Richmond MP Rishi Sunak.