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It was a busy old day for Boris Johnson today. His cabinet had a packed agenda, including the strategy on violence against women and girls, progress on disability policy and an update on Covid. Before he took questions in the Commons, the PM also discussed with fellow ministers the huge integrated review of defence and foreign policy.
But before all of that, Johnson staged a “political cabinet” meeting to discuss the coming May elections. It was a sign that no matter how crammed his day job duties are, he never loses sight of the electoral main chance.
Party chairman Amanda Milling pointed out that some seats last fought in 2017 were won at the peak of Theresa May’s stratospheric popularity. The PM played down the “vaccine bounce” in the national polls, preferring to talk about expected losses of hundreds of council seats. Yes, expectation management is even alive and kicking within “privacy” of the Cabinet room.
The full cabinet meeting was barely over when news emerged of another key contest on May 6: a Hartlepool by-election, prompted by the resignation of MP Mike Hill amid sex harassment allegations. Given Labour’s need for high turnout, it’s no surprise they decided to move the writ to hold the contest in super-quick time to coincide with the super-Thursday of the other elections.
The bookies swiftly installed the Tories as favourites, clearly swayed by the fact that Labour’s majority was slashed to just under 4,000 in 2019, that this is a ‘Red Wall’ seat, and by the government’s growing national poll lead. In what many will see as another bit of expectations management, one Labour insider tells me: “If you could pick one seat we didn’t want a by-election in, it is Hartlepool. It’s a nightmare.”
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Yes, the “vaccine bounce” looks quite stable so far. Yes, the continued rollout of the PM’s “roadmap” exit from Covid restrictions could further fuel a sense of spring optimism (April 12, the next big date in the roadmap, will see hairdressers and outdoor pubs open and you can bet the media will swarm round such establishments in Hartlepool).
Labour strategists think everything the PM does these days is aimed at the kind of former Labour voter in Hartlepool who defected to the Brexit Party at the last election (giving Farage’s party a whopping 25% of the vote). Tuesday was a case in point, with claims Labour was soft on crime over the Policing Bill and soft on defence over its complaints about nuclear proliferation.
Some Tories think Labour will squeak it, though in a manner that will fail to lift wider doubts about Keir Starmer in his first electoral test on May 6 across the country. There’s even a theory that a near-miss could echo Ed Miliband’s narrow Heywood and Middleton by-election victory over UKIP in 2014: just good enough to keep the leader limping on in place, but just bad enough to confirm his problems in northern heartlands meant he could never form a government.
I remember Dan Jarvis once telling me that if Miliband had lost that by-election, a leadership challenge would have become a serious prospect and who knows how the 2015 election would have turned out under someone else? Of course, we shouldn’t forget too that UKIP in Heywood and Middleton turned out to be the gateway drug to a Tory victory five years later in 2019.
And yet, for all that, many will expect Hartlepool to really stay Labour. It’s perfectly plausible that more than half of the Brexit Party vote at the last election came from Labour and not just Tory supporters. This time there will be no serious Farage party presence, and with Starmer’s much higher national poll ratings compared to Corbyn’s in 2019, it should be a Labour “hold”.
With many Tory “Red Wall” seats having Brexit Party votes larger than their Tory majority, squeezing that in Hartlepool could spell real danger for Johnson in other seats in 2024. A clear victory, backed by gains of some country councils, could give Starmer some much-needed momentum as he finally gets to make speeches in person and meet the public (35% of whom still say “don’t know” when asked about him) this summer and autumn. Some around him hope that politics, like the country, may be heading back to “normal”.
With the right candidate, Labour should be increasing its majority in Hartlepool, not hanging on for dear life. It’s possible that Starmer will try and capitalise when the reality of some defence cuts are revealed next week. Similarly, his tougher line on China (and Russia) than Corbyn has some pick up on the Tory backbenches. The sense that the UK is putting trade with Beijing before human rights was heightened by Dominic Raab’s remarks leaked to HuffPost today.
Starmer is sure to press hard too on BBC claims the PM tried to “ignore” the pandemic in its early days. Most toxic of all for the Tories, is the NHS nurses 1% offer, a cut-through basic fairness issue that threatens to undo all the good PR for the government on the vaccine. Matt Hancock didn’t help the case when he told the health select committee this was a “rise” (even on his own definition, a rise of 0.1%) not a real terms cut.
The brute fact is that governments don’t normally win by-elections from the Opposition. If Starmer does somehow lose Hartlepool, and if his gains in the council elections fail to show serious progress, his mountain path back to a Labour government will look more distant than ever. That won’t mean it’s suddenly all over for him, not least with unemployment set to rise later this year. But if he limps on like Ed Miliband in late 2014, Boris Johnson may think that’s the best of all possible outcomes.