David Cameron delivers his speech at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How the Tories plan to attack Labour and Ukip as one

Both parties will be portrayed as unserious and lacking in credibility. 

If the 2015 election was shaping up to be a traditional two-party contest the Tories are in little doubt that they would win. They lead Labour by double-digit margins on leadership and the economy, the two factors that traditionally determine the result. Oppositions have won elections while trailing on one of these measures before (the Tories won in 1979 despite Jim Callaghan being preferred to Margaret Thatcher, and Labour won in 1997 despite lagging the Conservatives on the economy) but none has ever won while trailing on both. 

What makes May 2015 so different is the rise of Ukip. The Tories feel like a superhero that has his old adversary beat but that faces an anarchic joker in the form of Nigel Farage. Ukip's surge in the polls (most Lib Dems now expect to finish behind them on votes), which has largely come at the Conservatives' expense, means that they are being forced to fight a war on two fronts. As David Cameron said recently: "I have a double battle on my hands – I have to win the blue/red fight but I also have to win back people in my own party."

This complicates the crisp and clear message - trust us with the economy and keep Cameron as prime minister - that the Tories want to deliver. But as they look forward to the election, Conservative strategists believe that they have found a way to fight Labour and Ukip as one. As one explained to me, they will portray both as fundamentally unserious parties that lack a credible plan for the country, sowing an equivalent sense of doubt and risk about each. Labour, they will say, has failed to apologise for overspending, and is threatening to borow more, while Ukip is prepared to change its tax policies on a whimBy framing themselves as the "grown ups" prepared to level with the voters, they hope to see off Miliband and Farage in one sweep. 

In this regard, the economic slowdown in the eurozone, which George Osborne has warned Britain will not be insulated from (the Treasury expects quarterly growth to fall from around 0.7-0.8 per cent to 0.5-0.6 per cent), could prove politically helpful. A stronger recovery could encourage voters to change captains in the belief that the storm has passed. As one Labour strategist once put it to me: "If they’re saying that the war’s been won, then people might start asking, 'How do we win the peace?'" By making it clear that the battle is not over, and that there is too much at stake to change sides, the Tories hope to survive as the largest party. 

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.