THE Tees Valley will be in the spotlight on Friday morning when the result of its mayoral election will help define the national picture.

The two big characters in Thursday’s elections are the Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen and the West Midlands’ Andy Street. If the Conservatives can hold both, Rishi Sunak will claim that in the forthcoming general election he can overturn the dire opinion polls no matter how many councillors he loses across the country; if the Conservatives lose both, Mr Sunak may even face an immediate leadership challenge.

Either way, these two mayors will point the way the country is heading, just as they did in 2017 when both were surprisingly elected in traditional Labour strongholds. Looking back, their victories can be seen as the first signs of the post-Brexit political age which led to Boris Johnson crashing through the red wall in 2019.

The Northern Echo: Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands Image: West Midlands Combined AuthorityAndy Street, the West Midlands mayor

In 2021, with Mr Johnson still riding high although secretly partying, both mayors were re-elected with increased popular votes – Mr Houchen, the levelling-up pin-up, won a whopping 72.8 per cent in a two-horse race.

By 2024, Conservative fortunes have collapsed, but both mayors appear bigger than their parties. Mr Street talks of “brand Andy” while Mr Houchen’s posters feature noticeably non-Conservative colours such as black and turquoise.

The poll in the West Midlands looks closer than in the Tees Valley. On Monday, YouGov said it was “too close to call” whereas Mr Houchen was put on 51 per cent to the 44 per cent of his Labour challenger, Chris McEwan, with the LibDems’ Simon Thorley squeezed to five per cent.

The Northern Echo: Rishi Sunak (centre) with Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen and supporters during a visit to Teesside Freeport, Teesworks, in RedcarRishi Sunak (centre) with Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen and supporters during a visit to Teesside Freeport, Teesworks, in Redcar

The campaign in the Tees Valley has looked like a rehearsal for the national election campaign that we are all going to enjoy in a few months.

Mr McEwan has tried to appear sensibly Starmerlike, calmly talking of buses and free parking, and offering nothing that would allow his opponents to shout “where’s the money coming from?” at him.

By contrast, Mr Houchen opened the campaign with a bold, brash promise to build a new hospital at North Tees, and he has bounded about the region, kicking up a fuss over all his bricks-and-mortar achievements – from Darlington station to Teesworks. He’s been engineering arguments over the future of Teesside Airport which only serve to remind voters that he was the mayor who, against the odds, brought the airport back into public ownership.

In the way that Mr Sunak would like to think his promises on Rwanda and increased defence spending will lead to voters forgetting the jokes of the Johnson days and the trauma of the Truss hours, so Mr Houchen’s frenetic campaigning is about drowning out the accusations of his critics, including the Boro chairman Steve Gibson, that there is something rotten at the heart of his deals.

The Northern Echo: Steve Gibson (front, centre) with Labour's Tees Valley Mayoral Candidate Chris McEwan, who he is backing to replace Ben Houchen as mayor.  Image: Picture: THE NORTHERN ECHOLabour's Chris McEwan in the directors' box at Middlesbrough FC next to club chairman Steve Gibson in a very public show of support 

Teesworks has hung over this campaign like an old-fashioned yellowy-brown Teesside smog. It will not go away – but can voters smell it?

A week or so ago, a Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll – which put both Houchen and McEwan level on 47 per cent – found that 63 per cent of people in the Tees Valley neither approved nor disapproved of Mr Houchen while 47 per cent said they were “not at all familiar” with him.

It is as if the independent inquiry, which cleared Mr Houchen of corruption but made 28 pretty damning recommendations about improvements, had gone over many people’s heads – indeed, an earlier poll found 25 people who thought that TV presenter Steph McGovern was the mayor of the Tees Valley.

The Northern Echo: Steph McGovern has officially opened a garden for critically ill patients at The James Cook University HospitalSteph McGovern opening a garden for critically ill patients at James Cook University Hospital, but she's not standing for Tees Valley mayor, to the disappointment of at least 25 people

So turnout in the Tees Valley will be worth watching – it was just 21.3 per cent in 2017 and 34 per cent in 2021 – and it will be an even larger question in our two other mayoral races, in the North East and North Yorkshire.

Neither is a natural area for a mayor to govern, even though this devolution model can bring great benefits to an area.

The Northern Echo: Keane Duncan, the Conservative candidate to be Mayor of York and North Yorkshire Image: SuppliedKeane Duncan, the Conservative candidate to be Mayor of York and North Yorkshire

In York and North Yorkshire, the Labour city is welded onto the Conservative countryside which probably makes the 29-year-old Tory candidate, Keane Duncan, the favourite. He has spent 100 days driving his campervan, named Peggy, across the vast area, and in a Houchenesque policy, he has pledged to nationalise Scarborough’s ailing, but landmark, Grand Hotel.

He is a former Daily Star journalist, and in terms of grabbing headlines, only the independent Keith Tordoff has come close. He has promised to give 20,000 egg-laying chickens to voters, saying: “Conservatives will give you money for nothing – Keith will give you chicks for free!”

The Northern Echo: Keith TordoffKeith Tordoff: free chickens

In the North East, which includes County Durham, Tyne and Wear and Northumberland, there are similar concerns about geography. In 2004, this region voted against 80:20 against a regional assembly partly because the outer areas feared they’d be dominated by Newcastle, yet at least five of the six candidates tomorrow are Newcastle-orientated, with the leading contenders defending their respective records as Northumbria Police & Crime Commissioner and the North of Tyne Mayor – this debate must feel a long way from Barnard Castle.

The Northern Echo: The North East Mayoral Hustings at Newcastle University. Candidates L-R Guy Renner-Thompson, Jamie Driscoll, Andrew Gray, Paul Donaghy, Aidan King and Kim McGuinness Image: LDRServiceThe North East mayoral candidates, from Guy Renner-Thompson (Con), Jamie Driscoll (Ind), Andrew Gray (Green), Paul Donaghy (Reform UK), Aidan King (LibDem) and Kim McGuinness (Lab)

Yet it is fascinating! Labour’s Kim McGuinness, the PCC, is expected to win and is the very model of a moderate candidate, but polling by More In Common, puts her just two points ahead of Jamie Driscoll, who was elected as the Labour North of Tyne Mayor but has since left the party as his sympathies are closer to Jeremy Corbyn than Keir Starmer.

So this red-on-red battle could tell us much about Starmer’s reshaped party.

Real political connoisseurs will also be looking at the PCC elections in Durham and Cleveland, which aren’t dominated by the big mayoral characters, to see how people really view the parties, and Hartlepool – which became the high watermark of Johnsonism with the 2021 by-election – has 12 council seats up for election. Seven are held by Conservatives and three by independents, and if Labour can win four of them, they will take back control of the council.

This would be a clear indication of the turning of the tide against the Tories, but the headlines will all be about the fate of Mr Houchen and what that tells us about the prospects for the general election in the coming months.