Rishi Sunak has been given a big boost in the Tory leadership race by winning the backing of the figure seen as the party’s ‘Mr North’.
Ben Houchen, the influential Tees Valley mayor, had criticised the failure of the contest to guarantee that Boris Johnson’s pledge to ‘level up’ the country will be carried forward.
Now Mr Houchen is endorsing the former chancellor as “a friend of the North” after securing a commitment to extend devolution deals with possible future freedoms over business rates and post-16 education.
He also praised the creation of the first ever Treasury campus outside of London, in Darlington, and Mr Sunak’s championing of tax-slashing freeports.
“I am delighted to give him my backing to become the leader of our party and the next prime minister of our great nation,” Mr Houchen said.
“During his time in government, Rishi showed unwavering support for Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool. As chancellor, he played a huge role in the transformation of our region.
“The relocation of civil service jobs from London to Darlington is giving local people the opportunity to forge rewarding careers in the heart of government, without having to leave the place they call home.”
Mr Sunak remains the favourite candidate of Conservative MPs, ahead of further ballots from Monday to whittle down the five surviving candidates to a final two by Wednesday.
But the winner will then be chosen by the 180,000-odd Tory members – who back Penny Mordaunt, according to a bombshell poll – before Mr Johnson leaves Downing Street on 6 September.
The retention of so-called ‘Red Wall seats’, snatched from Labour in 2019 partly because of Mr Johnson’s levelling up promises, will be crucial to the party’s hopes of staying in power.
As chancellor, Mr Sunak brought in the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund, which has allowed local leaders to fund small-scale projects despite massive council cuts.
However, the National Audit Office criticised it and the separate £3.2bn Towns Fund for picking projects too small to revive poorer areas and failing to analyse “what works”.
There has also been criticism of “pork barrel politics” as allocations from the two funds have favoured Conservative areas – for voter-friendly schemes such as libraries and leisure centres.
The leafy Richmondshire borough – which falls within Mr Sunak’s North Yorkshire seat – was given higher priority for the Levelling Up fund than struggling Barnsley.
Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own watchdog concluded that freeports – which enjoy controversial tax breaks to “generate trade and jobs” – will fail to boost the economy overall.
On a visit to the Teesside freeport, Mr Sunak said: “I believe I’m the candidate who can bring opportunity and prosperity in northern powerhouses like Teesside, and restore trust in government, so we can rebuild our economy together.”