Conservative MP James Wharton, who is set to hold his seat. Photograph: BBC.
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Why is Labour losing to the Tories in ultra-marginal Stockton South?

Losses to Ukip mean the party has failed to gain any ground since 2010. 

Labour strategists have long drawn comfort from their party's polling performance in the marginal seats they need to win in 2015. But a new survey by Survation (commissioned by Unite) of north-east constituency Stockton South, where the sitting Conservative MP James Wharton has a majority of just 332, makes unhappy reading for them.

It puts the Tories in front on 39 per cent (unchanged on 2010) with Labour two points behind on 37 per cent (down one), Ukip on 18 per cent (up 15), the Lib Dems on 3 per cent (down 12) and the Greens on 3 per cent (up three). Support for Nigel Farage's party has surged and support for Nick Clegg's has collapsed but Ed Miliband's has failed to benefit. As the detailed data shows, gains from the latter (35 per cent of 2010 Lib Dems back Labour) have been offset by losses to the former (who 12 per cent of 2010 Labour voters have defected), the Tories and the Greens. Wharton, who has worked hard to build a personal following and who tabled the recent EU referendum bill, is also likely to have benefited from an incumbency effect. 

The poll is a demonstration of the nightmare scenario for Labour in 2015: Ukip soar, the Lib Dems sink, but the Tories manage to cling on as the single largest party. It is also a reminder, as I've argued before, that the real danger facing the party is not that it loses seats to the Farageists (although it may) but that Ukip splits the anti-government vote in Conservative marginals. 

This is, of course, just one survey (and the Tories' lead is within the margin of error) and just one seat. But six months out from the general election, Labour should worry that it has seemingly failed to gain ground in what is a must-win constituency. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

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