Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. Beware the vitriol Tories reserve for the BBC (Guardian)

We shouldn't buy into this right-wing hysteria – Conservatives will seize on any excuse to dismantle the corporation, writes Diane Abbott.

2. New sheriffs in town – but will law and order change? (Daily Telegraph)

Wiith the election of police and crime commissioners, political parties are missing a major chance to improve justice in towns and cities, says Mary Riddell.

3. The BBC should learn from the Birt era (Financial Times)

The corporation should not confuse a change of personnel with a renewal of its strategy and output, writes James Purnell.

4. There is something profoundly wrong with a Britain where only the 'little people' pay taxes (Daily Mail)

A seedy amorality over paying tax has spread throughout the upper echelons of our society, writes Ian Birrell.

5. Britain’s door is too open to foreign tycoons (Times) (£)

The City’s reputation has taken a battering recently, writes David Wighton. That’s why we must be wary about who does business here.

6. Why Obama is more than Bush with a human face (Guardian)

Ground-floor thinking can give Obama lift-off, writes Slavoj Žižek. His reforms have already touched a nerve at the core of the US ideological edifice.

7. Police commissioners are worth voting for (Independent)

Flawed or not, this week's ballot will give the public a say for the first time, says an Independent leader.

8. Europe is messing up Merkel’s union (Financial Times)

If Germany can’t head off crises its citizens will pay for, unhappiness will turn to fury, says Sebastian Mallaby.

9. Bureaucracy has become the BBC's dieback disease (Guardian)

So unwieldy is its vast, multilayered hierarchy that the corporation has lost all capacity to allocate blame for its mistakes, says Simon Jenkins.

10. Whether you like it or not, the era of much smaller government is fast approaching in Britain (Independent)

We are at the end of a set of ideas that have prevailed for the best part of a century, writes Hamish McRae.

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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.