Morning Call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. The Tories will get burnt fighting fire with fire (Times)

Daniel Finkelstein says that negative campaigning could damage David Cameron's image with the voters. The media focus on the Tories is an opportunity, not a threat.

2. Can anyone explain what the Conservative Party stands for? (Daily Telegraph)

Simon Heffer is not impressed with the way Cameron has moved power of decision-making in the party to the centre. In the absence of the old, core right-wing policies, the Tories lack clarity and direction, and are haemorrhaging support to fringe parties.

3. Bashing the rich won't work for Obama. But other rallying cries might (Guardian)

Obama is shrewd not to inveigh against the bankers, says Michael Tomasky. It would be better to make his cause by reminding America of the good things that the government does, and who higher taxes will help.

4. Passport to the truth in Dubai remains secret (Independent)

Whoever killed the Hamas official in Dubai is still playing an old, dirty war, says Robert Fisk. Now we must look beneath the propaganda for the truth.

5. How to walk the fiscal tightrope that lies before us (Financial Times)

Martin Wolf warns that huge fiscal tightening could tip much of the world back into recession. We must make it one of our priorities to let the private sector heal.

6. Power to the people -- and trust them too (Times)

James Purnell and Jim Murphy renew calls for a radical Labour manifesto. The party has lost faith in its communal roots, they say, but the public can be trusted to make the right decisions.

7. Why is our anti-war outrage muted at this Afghan folly? (Guardian)

Even doubters seem to be giving the military intervention one last chance, says John Kampfner, but there is little confidence it will succeed.

8. The year China showed its claws (Financial Times)

David Shambaugh looks at what lies behind Beijing's new assertiveness. Is it a case of true colours showing, a display of nationalism in the run-up to a change of leadership, or a sign of confidence gained from the vindication of the Chinese development model?

9. The Bank of England is right to hold its nerve (Independent)

Inflation is proving sticky, but it is premature to tighten monetary policy, says the main leader.

10. Hostage to hot air (Guardian)

Isabel Hilton says that the climate debate in the United States is mired in political weakness and infighting, setting the tone for unconstructive global negotiations.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.