Boris Johnson's MP duties seem to have stopped him attending Pope Francis's climate change summit. Photos: Getty
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Has Boris Johnson snubbed the Pope?

The Mayor of London is missing a meeting of the world's mayors at the Vatican to discuss climate change with the Pope. Why?

The Pope has invited the world's mayors to a two-day meeting, beginning Tuesday this week, to discuss his new favourite subject: climate change.

Following his landmark encyclical on the environment last month, in which he warned us of “serious consequences for all” if humanity fails to act on climate change, Pope Francis has invited mayors of cities around the world to meet at the Vatican to discuss the fight against global warming.

There are over 60 attendees, including such high-profile figures as the mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio, and the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo. The full list of attendees and programme is available here.

The mayor of London Boris Johnson was invited to attend, specifically to participate in a workshop on modern slavery and climate change, and a Symposium on Cities and Sustainable Development, at the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Sciences on 21 and 22 July. But he isn't there, and nor has his office sent a GLA representative in his place.

A City Hall spokesperson explains his absence:

The Mayor was unable to attend the Vatican’s events this week due to diary constraints. He is however delighted that the Vatican is highlighting the issues of climate change and modern slavery, and congratulates Pope Francis on his initiatives in this area. Addressing the challenge of climate change is one of the Mayor’s key priorities and he has led the world in city-based efforts to reduce emissions, including his announcement of an Ultra-Low Emissions Zone in central London to be introduced in 2020.

Although it is unclear what Johnson's diary constraints were specifically, he was present at the late Welfare Bill vote in parliament the night before the conference, in his capacity as Tory MP for Uxbridge. And an insider tells me he also has Commons commitments on Tuesday, the first day of the conference.

His non-attendance at the Vatican, depriving London of a representative at a global mayoral meeting about tackling climate change, suggests two things. The first is that climate change is not a priority (as the comment from his spokesperson denies). And the second is that his duties as an MP are clashing with his mayoral commitments, and he has been compelled to pursue the former over the latter, which will only add to the characterisation of Johnson by his detractors as a "part-time mayor".

The only UK delegates at the conference are the Bristol mayor George Ferguson, and the Manchester mayor Tony Lloyd.

Ferguson, known for his green credentials, spoke at the conference this afternoon about what Bristol is doing to reduce carbon emissions. He wouldn't comment on Johnson's absence, but is clearly aware of how useful an event like this can be, and urges all city mayors to join the conversation:

I regard it as a great honour for Bristol to have been invited to address this vitally important conference, hosted by the Pope at the Vatican. Cities are at the frontline of climate change in terms of both problems and solutions, and I implored all city leaders to unite on the related issues of poverty, modern slavery and climate change.

De Blasio has used the Vatican summit to make a pledge to cut New York carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.