What lies behind the Tories' poll bounce?

The Tories surge past Labour in the polls after Cameron's rejection of a new EU treaty.

Suddenly, after remaining static for months, the polls are moving again. The latest Reuters/Ipsos-MORI survey, carried out after the EU summit, puts the Tories in the lead for the first time this year, with support for Cameron's party rising seven points to 41 per cent and support for Labour falling two points to 39 per cent. Similarly, the latest daily YouGov poll has the Tories two points ahead of Labour, the first time they've led with that pollster since December 2010. Labour's lead, which has stood at five to six points for the last month, has evaporated.

Of course, correlation does not equal causation, but it certainly seems as if Cameron's EU stance has benefited his party. This may seem surprising, since, as polling by Ipsos-MORI regularly shows, only four per cent of voters regard Europe as one of the most "important issues" facing the country. And yet it can still shift polls. There are at least two plausible reasons why. Firstly, for a minority of voters, Europe clearly is very important. The rise in support for the Tories has coincided with a revealing fall in support for Ukip. For a period, with ratings as high as seven per cent, Nigel Farage's party was snapping at the Lib Dems' heels but the latest YouGov poll has them on just three per cent. Britain's eurosceptics are returning to the Conservative fold.

Secondly, as UK Polling Report's Anthony Wells points out, Cameron's bulldoggery (and the favourable headlines it garnered) may have changed perceptions of the PM himself and his leadership. He notes: "[I]f it makes people think David Cameron is a stronger leader who stands up for the country it may improve perceptions of him across the board." Cameron's personal approval ratings remain higher than Miliband's, a fact Tory strategists have continually drawn comfort from. As I've noted before, leadership ratings are often a better long-term indicator of the next election result than voting intentions. Labour party frequently led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance, but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister.

It remains to be seen whether the Tory surge hardens into a permanent advantage. But the fragility of Labour's lead has been exposed for all to see. Miliband's party will still likely walk to victory in tomorrow's Feltham by-election but an unusually strong Conservative showing would raise further questions for Labour.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.