The five things you need to know about the Copeland and Stoke Central by-elections…
1) COPELAND’S ATOM-NATION SPRING
Theresa May was woken by a text message early this morning with the news that the Tories had taken Copeland. She was so delighted she woke up husband Philip, who was also snoozing peacefully in their Number 10 flat.
Tory candidate Trudy Harrison’s stunning win in Copeland is a truly stat-busting, sit-up-and-take-notice political event. This is a Labour heartland, a Cumbrian seat where the Tories last won in the 1930s. It’s also been decades since a party in office gained a by-election from the Opposition. The governing party has only increased its vote share in just five by-elections in England since 1971 - and two of them were last night (including Stoke Central). And it didn’t even need a war to do it.
No wonder the PM is pleased. Labour’s increasingly desperate use of the NHS as a political weapon failed miserably. As we said in our podcast yesterday, if you’re a Sellafield worker worried about where your next job is coming from, that’s more powerful than any threat to a maternity unit that may or may not affect your children or grandchildren. Corbyn’s anti-nuclear views proved more toxic than an atomic waste dump.
Corbyn’s equivocation on a new power plant, plus his stance on Trident, point to a leader out of step with many working class voters. And the deeper problem is indeed among that working class base. Election results show that vote soared in Blair’s two first election victories (contrary to claims that he only appealed to the middle classes) before falling around 2003 and steadily dropping since.
The night’s Comical Ali Award goes to Corbyn-supporting MP Cat Smith, who told ITV’s Dan Hewitt: “to be 15-18 points behind in the polls and to push the Tories within 2000 votes is an incredible achievement”. Incredible is certainly the word for that quote.
But John McDonnell made a strong bid for the title as he toured the studios this morning, blaming the Copeland result on Brexit, Tony Blair’s intevention last week, Peter Mandelson’s criticism and last summer’s ‘coup’ by Labour MPs (“people will not vote for a divided party”). The Shadow Chancellor even told the Today programme: “It was pretty unique, the factors around nuclear” in Copeland. That's despite all the polls showing the nation as a whole backs nuclear power and weapons.
Pressed on whether Corbyn was himself to blame, McDonnell said “I don’t think this is about individuals”, but admitted “there’s mixed views on Jeremy”. Corbyn himself has a speech this morning on Brexit and his Facebook message last night suggested he’s digging in to represent all those who elected him: “Whatever the results, the Labour party and our mass membership must go further”.
Copeland may have been Corbyn’s nuclear winter by-election, but for May it already feels like spring has sprung. She could use the Budget to ram home her economic credibility and further neutralise the NHS and social care issue. Later next month, she can use the triggering of Article 50 to show she is delivering for Labour Leave voters. In May, Labour is set to lose ground in the county council elections and get wiped out by the SNP in Scottish local elections. And nationally, May’s sky-high poll ratings may get even better.
2) SPLIT THE KIPPER
In Liverpool and other places in the north in the 1970s, kids used to play a game called ‘Split the Kipper’. It involved two opponents taking turns to throw a pen knife near each other’s feet, stretching a foot to reach it, until one of them fell over. This morning, after UKIP’s vote split between Labour and the Tories in Stoke Central, Scouse leader Paul Nuttall is certainly a big loser.
Nigel Farage tried and failed seven times to become an MP but even he said Stoke would be a “fundamental test” for his party. As he left the count last night, Nuttall put it perfectly when he said “We’re not goin’ anywhere, I’m not goin’ anywhere”. There was then a priceless moment when the Kippers tried to find him transport home, with one aide shouting: “Where’s the car? Where the fuck’s the car?” Where indeed. It looks like he’s also bottled an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show this Sunday.
Nuttall came just 79 votes ahead of the twentysomething Tory candidate, proof that the split vote was not Labour’s, it was UKIP’s. The Stoke result was almost perfect for Theresa May, showing Labour has to fight hard just to hold on to once safe seats, while confirming Leave voters will never give UKIP any real Parliamentary prescence. UKIP chairman Paul Oakden told the Today prog: "It took us 23-odd years for us to win a referendum to get Britain out of the European Union. It make take us that long to get a seat in Westminster via a by-election.”
The 37% turnout in Stoke shows just how disillusioned voters are with all the parties. Labour’s Gareth Snell won with a reduced majority of 2,600, hardly a stunning triumph in an area held since the 1930s, and as the seat itself will be abolished in boundary changes he will probably become a footnote in political history.
There was one lighter moment on the Stoke front last night as Government minister Matt Hancock, on BBC’s This Week, rather painfully couldn’t name the Tory candiate in the seat. “Phil Broughton?” he asked. No, he was called Jack Brereton. I’m dying to know which Phil Broughton the minister was thinking of. There is a UKIP bloke with that name. Maybe he’ll become their new leader…?
3) SNAP, CRACKLE, POP?
So, will she, or won’t she? Will Theresa May now be tempted to go for a snap general election in the spring? So far, she’s stood firm against pleas from a hardcore of Tory MPs who believe that Jeremy Corbyn presents a golden opportunity for the PM win her own personal mandate.
Their logic is simple: win a big enough majority to neuter your own rebels, put back Labour’s chances of Government another two years until 2027, make the most of a health economy that can only get worse - and gain an invaluable negotiating weapon with Brussels by saying the public backs your vision for Brexit.
The counter case, of course, is the risk that a snap election could finally snap Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (though he could of course stay on despite defeat) and many Tories think he’s the gift that keeps on giving and should be enjoyed for as long as possible. They also believe that the longer Corbyn is leader, the deeper the hole for Labour when the voters finally do deliver their verdict. Some Tories think they could win a majority of 80 or even 100.
Don’t forget that we’ve seen nothing yet in terms of the heavy bombardment he will face in posters and party broadcasts about him not singing the national anthem, his links with Sinn Fein/IRA, his refusal to use nuclear weapons and a treasure trove of Labour MPs quotes about his lack of competence. That’s even without the revived spectre of Labour needing SNP votes to win power.
One canny Tory MP told me yesterday the thinking behind the strategy of going for Copeland and Stoke so hard: Labour will be so worried about protecting its heartland seats that it will have to suck resources away from marginals. Labour MPs in the north will demand cash, time and resource to save what should be solid majorities, leaving the party less able to defend its tighter contests, let alone try and grab Tory seats.
Mrs May is notoriously cautious. But she’s also proved she doesn’t mind taking risks, as long as they are calculated risks. Whatever she decides, those around her will think the awful dilemma of going for a big victory in 2017 or 2020 is a nice problem to have.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Andrew Neil do a dab on BBC1’s This Week. ‘Bonkers Tom Watson got so gassed off by Jezza's performance at PMQs that he started dabbing..” As Andrew said, ‘YOLO’
4) BLAME GAME KICK-OFF
Jeremy Corbyn is an actual, genuine football fan. So he more than most will get the ironic timing of Leicester City’s statement last night announcing the sacking of manager Claudio Ranieri: ”The board reluctantly feels that a change of leadership, while admittedly painful, is necessary in the club's greatest interest..Results in the current campaign have placed the club's Premier League status under threat.” Just a few months a few months ago, the manager had been given ‘unwavering support’ by the party membership, sorry, club board.
Assuming that Corbyn will not walk, will anyone try to move against him off the back of the dreadful Copeland result? I’m told that Corbynsceptic MPs will restrain themselves, preferring instead to put pressure on the Left to decide what they themselves do next. Will Clive Lewis and John McDonnell decide there really is no option but to suggest to the Labour leader he should step aside (maybe after a rule change to cut nominations required to run for leader?).
For Labour ‘moderates’, today is yet another painful morning of waking up to bad news. After the 2015 general election, after Corybn’s two victories, after Brexit, this is yet another blow to pro-European, non-Tory centrists. Labour’s 2010 and 2015 general election results were truly awful and yet it still managed to hold on to places like Copeland. Richard Angell of the Blairite Progress group says the result “should make John McDonnell and Seumas Milne – who are keeping Jeremy Corbyn in office – rethink”.
So far, there’s no sign of a rethink. But the clock is ticking. Diane Abbott, McDonnell, Ken Livingstone have all given Corbyn a year to turn round the polls. Unison’s Dave Prentis appeared to gave him until party conference. And the next big contest is for Unite general secretary: will union members be spooked into backing Gerard Coyne rather than Len McCluskey (there’s little sign of that so far)?
And YouGov’s fascinating poll yesterday listed some possible glimpses of the future. Sadiq Khan is the most well-known, popular choice. But among those less well known, there’s a trio of Dan Jarvis, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer. Ones to watch.
There was partial comfort from Corbyn last night in his favoured measure of Labour popularity: local council by-elections. Labour’s tractor-driving Dave Trigger won a 10% increase in the party’s vote in the Devon ward of Charterlands. The overall turnout was a massive 46.5%, just behind Copeland and way above Stoke. The downside, however, is that Labour won a total of 10% of the votes, and the Lib Dems stormed to victory.
Corbyn supporters used to say the polls all underestimate Labour's true support. They no longer say that, and in fact those polls may OVER-estimate Labour support (that's the lesson of 2015). Some will say by-elections tell you nothing about general elections. And it's true that stunning Opposition wins in local contests are not always followed by the keys to No.10. But if there's no guarantee you'll win an election off the back of a by-election victory, there's sure as hell no guarantee you'll win one off the back of a by-election loss.
5) PIP, PIP, FORAY
Yesterday, late on a by-election day, the Department for Work and Pensions smuggled out a ministerial statement on disability benefits. In a classic case of burying bad news, the DWP announced it had rewritten the law to deny increased ‘Personal Independent Payments’ (known as PIP) to more than 150,000 people.
Two tribunals had ruled that the benefit should be expanded to give more money to people who suffer ‘overwhelming psychological distress’ when travelling, and to those on medication. Ministers felt the rulings went beyond the original intention of the benefit and would have cost the taxpayer an extra £3.7bn by 2022. The statement came out at 4.30pm, Labour put out a reaction at 6pm, which I suppose is super-fast compared to the usual 12 hour delays for most Labour press releases these days.
The Disability Rights UK campaign says the change will hit people who have a learning disability, diabetes, epilepsy, anxiety or dementia. But what has angered charities most was the way the DWP changed the law without consulting the government's own statutory Social Security Advisory Committee. For Labour supporters, the cost of not being in power - and power looking even more remote after last night’s by-elections - could not be more stark.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Listen HERE to our take on how the NHS isn’t enough to win by-elections or general elections (prescient huh?), on the business rate and Guantanamo rows, and on Free School spending. We also have an ace quiz on which books have been written by MPs, and which haven’t.
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