CommentPlus: pick of the papers

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

1. A two-faced coalition is hard to fight but Labour needs to find a way, quick (Guardian)

Jonathan Freedland offers some advice to Labour: the opposition can best do its job by getting over the Blair-Brown rift -- and nailing Conservative claims that it caused the present crisis.

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2. You remember Labour's downfall -- or do you? (Times)

Our recollection of political events is more fallible than we realise, says Daniel Finkelstein. Labour is winning the battle of narratives, and much depends on whether the party can keep it up.

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3. We have to plan for a bigger population (Independent)

The population is growing, says Hamish McRae, so we must plan for it both physically and socially. The first involves more spending on infrastructure; the second is to do with defining rights and responsibilities.

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4. The war on greed begins at the dinner table (Financial Times)

Max Hastings argues that our bankers would be rash to ignore public sentiment, which will make political intervention inevitable unless they accept a culture change.

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5. The prison system is too big to fail, and too big to succeed (Guardian)

Anne Owers, the retiring chief inspector of prisons, discusses the pressures on the system. With our correctional institutions overcrowded, resources have been sucked from the agencies that could prevent reoffending.

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6. My undemocratic survival plan for the euro (Times)

If Europe can avoid financial breakdown at the end of this month, the single currency will probably pull through, says Anatole Kaletsky. But only a full-scale federal Europe will keep it secure.

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7. Sarkozy's summer of scandal (Independent)

John Lichfield looks at the financial scandal engulfing Nicolas Sarkozy. He came to power promising to be a new kind of politician, but the French president is now beset by old-fashioned troubles. Can he survive?

8. Three years and new fault lines threaten (Financial Times)

Martin Wolf points out that the challenge of returning to stability after the financial crash while maintaining an open global economy is enormous. Leaders of the world's main economies must reform co-operatively and deeply.

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9. Is Google just the start? (Guardian)

As the global giant loses out in China, western firms fear the odds may be stacked against them. Isabel Hilton discusses the perception of a growing policy of state-led discrimination in favour of Chinese firms.

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10. Let's defend our way of life, not just our lives (Times)

Total safety is incompatible with an open society. The Conservative MP David Davis says that is why he can't support 28-day detention -- the longest in the civilised world.

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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.