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Stoke Central by-election: Brexit and other issues that could swing the vote

Voters in Stoke-on-Trent Central will choose their replacement for Tristram Hunt next week. Can Ukip's Paul Nuttall usurp Labour?

Stoke-on-Trent has been dubbed the Brexit capital of Britain - and with good reason. Almost 70 per cent of voters in the Staffordshire city voted to leave the EU last June, and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall hopes to harness the anti-EU - and anti-Westminster - sentiment that drove that crushing majority into a by-election victory. Meanwhile, Labour's candidate Gareth Snell has attracted unwanted media attention for his unsavoury past tweets about women

Labour, however, have reason to be optimistic. Tristram Hunt, who has vacated the seat for a cushy job at the Victoria & Albert Museum, was the only latest in a string of Labour MPs to hold the seat since 1935. Despite Snell's online embarrassments, the row over the veracity of Ukip leader Paul Nuttall's Hillsborough recollections has given Labour hope that they can mount a successful defence of the 5,179 majority they won in 2015. But what are the key issues at stake in the Potteries?

Brexit

Stoke's 69.4 per cent vote for Leave - the highest of any city in the UK - was chief among the factors that encouraged Nuttall to ditch his original plan to stand for Andy Burnham's seat if, as expected, he wins the Manchester mayoral election. The Ukip leader's party have pledged to fight for a "speedy Brexit" if elected, and this week splashed out on a new billboard campaign, which warns voters that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will - somehow - keep them in the EU. Anxiety over migration is front and centre of their campaign - the posters promise border control and priority for local people on housing waiting lists.

Labour's choice of a vocal Remainer as their candidate - Snell called Brexit "a massive pile of shit" in a sweary tweet last year - has left them at pains to convince the electorate that the Ukip caricature of their stance is wrong. The party is making much of the fact that its other two Stoke MPs, Ruth Smeeth and Rob Flello, both voted in favour of Article 50 last week.

Snell is pushing for a "plan that works for the Potteries". His focus on jobs and the economy could yet pay off: the British Ceramics Federation, which has its headquarters in the city and represents an industry that remains a big employer, has called, like Labour, for tariff-free access to the single market. The party is essentially pitching itself as a safe bet to avowed Brexiteers. In a city once known as a BNP hotspot (the far-right party had nine councillors here as recently as 2009), it is perhaps not surprising that Labour has featured the cross of St George on its campaign material, but the move has nevertheless caused some unease. 

Turnout

The electoral picture is complicated by the fact that that turnout on 23 June was 65.7 per cent, compared with just 49.9 per cent - the lowest of any seat in the country - in 2015. Recent polls have shown that Remain voters are more likely to turn out, which has given the Lib Dems hope they can pull off something of an upset (past results also suggest that the lower the turnout, the less likely a Ukip win).

Unlike in previous years, the local Lib Dem branch is running a fully-staffed campaign. It hopes to cash in on disenchantment with Labour's Brexit stance in areas of the city populated by students and public sector workers (such as Penkhull & Stoke, Hartshill, and Shelton). Their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, is, like 15 per cent of the constituency's population, of Kashmiri origin. This could also prove a boon for their campaign.

Lib Dem campaigners are quietly confident they can finish second, above Ukip, if Labour holds the seat. The party finished second in 2010, and its canvassing returns show significant numbers of voters returning from the party - not just from Labour, but also from the Tories and Ukip. 

The NHS

Pick up a copy of the Sentinel, Stoke's daily paper, and more often than not it's the state of the health service, rather than Brexit, that's getting its correspondents and interviewees riled up. Beds at community hospitals in the city are under threat (which only the Greens are saying very much about), and A&E waiting times at the larger Royal Stoke lag well behind national targets. Both Labour and Ukip have been campaigning hard on the issue. Big Labour guns including Tom Watson have been dispatched to the campaign trail to pledge extra cash for local services. Nuttall promised to cut foreign aid to the same end. 

Labour have accused Nuttall of wanting to privatise the NHS - in 2011 he described it as a "monolithic hangover from days gone by". From day one, then, Ukip have sought to dispel fears that electing their man would somehow put its publicly-owned future in jeopardy. Much will depend on whether Labour's attacks stick. 

Council cuts

Labour may well seek to turn the embarrasing fact that it no longer controls Stoke's city council - since 2015 run by a coalition of the Tories, Ukip and the local City Independents - to its candidate's advantage. Cuts to children's centres in the constituency are a big source of anger for local residents, as are housing waiting lists. However, this year's budget will be laid out at a council meeting the evening polls close - too late for new and doubtless unpopular cuts to have any impact on the by-election race. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.