POLITICS

Jeremy Corbyn Facing UKIP By-Election Threat As Labour MP Tristram Hunt Quits

Another 'moderate' MP stands down - to take up V&A Museum job

13/01/2017 09:44 GMT | Updated 13/01/2017 16:03 GMT
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Labour MP Tristram Hunt is to quit Parliament and trigger a fresh by-election headache for Jeremy Corbyn.

The former Shadow Education Secretary, an arch critic of Corbyn, is to take up the post of Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, he confirmed on Friday.

Hunt’s decision will spark a by-election in his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, where UKIP came second at the 2015 general election.

Labour is already facing another by-election in Copeland in Cumbria, after former shadow health minister Jamie Reed announced he was resigning to take up a job at Sellafield nuclear power plant.

Hunt’s local Labour party has seen a big increase in pro-Corbyn supporters and there has been speculation that he would have been ousted in the reselection process triggered by Westminster boundary changes.

Stoke-on-Trent Central is set to be axed by the 2020 general election, and parcelled up between neighbouring seats held by fellow MPs Ruth Smeeth and Rob Flello.

Hunt, an academic historian, resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in September 2015, after the election of Corbyn as Labour leader, because of what he called “substantial policy differences”.

BBC
The 2015 Stoke-on-Trent Central result

At the height of the ‘coup’ attempt last summer, he emailed local constituents to explain why he had backed a motion of no confidence in Corbyn.

“While I admit that I have always had some doubts about Jeremy’s ability to lead the Party, his failure to take a clear and unambiguous stand on the EU referendum – a vote of huge significance for this country - was the final straw for me,” he wrote.

In his resignation letter on Friday, he stressed he has ‘no desire to rock the boat’, but he had a clear warning about Corbyn’s leadership.

“As a deeply patriotic British citizen, I believe our country needs a strong Opposition and credible, alternative Labour government.”

Tristram Hunt
Tristram Hunt's resignation letter

Labour had a majority of 5,000 at the last election over UKIP, but the Tories polled 7,000 votes and if the contest narrows to a straight two-horse race, Nigel Farage’s party could clinch it.

The Liberal Democrats were traditionally second in the seat but saw their vote collapse in 2015. If they revive as they have in other areas of the country, Labour could be squeezed by pro-EU and anti-EU parties.

The by-election will be a key test for new leader Paul Nuttall, who may face calls to stand himself in the Staffordshire constituency.

Victoria Jones/PA Wire
UKIP leader Paul Nuttall

Nuttall, a Liverpudlian, has repeatedly said that his main aim this Parliament is to see UKIP replace Labour in the north and midlands, areas where many voters backed Brexit in the EU referendum last year.

Although Hunt was a passionate ‘Remain’ campaigner, Stoke-on-Trent and nearby areas was dubbed the ‘Brexit capital’ of England after recording one of the highest Leave votes in the country, with 65.7% wanting to quit the EU.

The MP was caught on camera showing his surprise when a school pupil once told him he was backing UKIP ‘to get all the foreigners out of the country”.

Hunt - who once worked for Tony Blair donor and ally Lord Sainsbury - rarely agreed with Corbyn, but decided not to run for the party leadership himself in 2015 because of a lack of backing from fellow MPs.

Relations with Ed Miliband were often strained as Hunt, a ‘Blairite’ former aide to Peter Mandelson, felt the party was abandoning the political centre ground.

Hunt once joked that he was a “god-fearing, national anthem singing, roast beef-eating” Labour politician - a direct jibe at Corbyn, a non-religious vegetarian who was attacked for failing to sing ‘God Save The Queen’.

Some local activists in Stoke-on-Trent claim Hunt, who had no previous local links, was “parachuted” into the seat in 2010. Harriet Harman is said to have helped ensure Labour’s selection process would not be conducted via an all-women shortlist, specifically to help Hunt’s chances.

Chris Radburn/PA Archive
Tristram Hunt and Ed Miliband

In a statement, Jeremy Corbyn said: “I would like to thank Tristram Hunt for his service to the people of Stoke on Trent Central and to the Labour Party. I wish him well in his future role at the V&A.”

But Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson made clear his dismay that yet another Labour MP was stepping down.

“I am disappointed to see a talented MP like Tristram step down,” he said.

“His departure will be keenly felt by Parliament and by the Labour Party but I know he will continue to champion Stoke-on-Trent’s proud industrial heritage in his new role at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“The Labour party will move swiftly to ensure Stoke on Trent Central continues to be represented by a strong and capable Labour MP.”

Fellow Labour MP Michael Dugher also expressed his sadness at the move.

There was even a hint that the Tory government knew about Hunt’s decision to quit before Jeremy Corbyn was informed.

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley approved his appointment and Downing Street confirmed it had been then “rubber stamped” by the Prime Minister.

 

Mayor Sadiq Khan said that Labour’s loss was London’s gain.

But Labour MP John Spellar was clearly unhappy at suggestions that Hunt was not prepared for a ‘long haul’ in Parliament.

And Tony Blair’s former communications chief Alastair Campbell said the resignation was a stark verdict on the direction of Labour under Corbyn.

But some Corbyn supporters were not sad to see Hunt go, with leftwing Labour MP Paul Flynn tweeting - and then deleting - his reaction.

Labour now faces a decision on whether to hold both the Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent by-elections on the same day.

The Liberal Democrats were delighted that they won a council by-election seat from Labour in its Sunderland heartland on Thursday night. Tim Farron’s party won after a 41% increase in its vote. 

Sources close to Corbyn insisted that the Sandhill ward by-election was an anomaly as it followed a sitting Labour councillor being disqualified for not turning up to meetings for six months.