IT is too early to call outright winners and losers, but overnight results suggest Labour is clawing its way back in its once former heartland in the North East, a heartland that was stolen from it by a combination of Ben, Boris and Brexit.

The overnights mean that the Darlington result, expected this afternoon, now assumes national importance – it will be a key indicator about whether Sir Keir Starmer really is rebuilding the red wall.

Mixed in with the trepidation ahead of the count, there must be some confidence among local Labour activists as their victory in the Middlesbrough mayoral contest was massive – their share of the vote rose from 23 per cent to 40 per cent while Independent Andy Preston’s fell from 59 per cent to 37 per cent.

But in Hartlepool, Labour failed by the narrowest of margins to take back control of the council it lost in 2019. It fell one seat short – and it lost one seat by just two votes, the smallest of margins.

Back in May 2019, Labour suffered a catastrophic defeat in the local elections in the Tees Valley, losing not just Hartlepool but also Darlington, Redcar & Cleveland and Middlesbrough councils while clinging to Stockton by its fingertips. This gave the Conservatives momentum and when Boris Johnson became leader for the December 2019 general election, unleashed a Tory tsunami that rolled from Redcar right through to North West Durham.

It is beginning to feel as the issues that caused that tsunami are, before our eyes, working their way through the electoral digestive tract.

Brexit was a big one – Labour’s calls for a second vote in 2019 were seen as blocking Brexit which this Leave-voting area did not like. But is that now forgotten? In Hartlepool, it seems the Ukip vote has gone back to Labour, and in Sunderland, the pro-EU LibDems made a gain that has turned them into the official opposition.

Jeremy Corbyn was another big issue back in 2019. The traditional Labour voters did not like his brand and he forced them to vote elsewhere. Mr Starmer has removed that unsettling, radical edge to the party which is beginning to allow the traditional vote to come home.

And, of course, Boris is no more. In his heyday, his indefinable powers took the Tories to parts of Ferryhill, Bishop Auckland and Hartlepool that no other leader has been able to reach, and the overnight results – with Labour gaining a Durham County Council seat from the Tories in Chester-le-Street – suggest Rishi Sunak does not yet have that same allure.

In Darlington, though, the Tories believe they have created a levelling up poster town: Treasury jobs, station investment, airport nationalisation and Towns Fund cash represent big steps forward. Mr Sunak was even famously pictured looking into a Darlo pothole and, magically, it was fixed.

If there were a pork barrel, it has been rolled out in the Tees Valley to help the mayor, Ben Houchen, advance his big plans.

For all that, to win Darlington, where all 50 seats are being contested, Labour just needs to add six more to the 20 it won in 2019 when it lost control of the council after 22 years. The overnight results now suggest that is likely to happen but, as the two-vote margin in Hartlepool reminds us, we shall not know until every single ballot paper is counted.