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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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Theresa May knows she's talking nonsense - here's why she's doing it

The Prime Minister's argument increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in her words - the Tories your vote.

Good morning.  Angela Merkel and Theresa May are more similar politicians than people think, and that holds true for Brexit too. The German Chancellor gave a speech yesterday, and the message: Brexit means Brexit.

Of course, the emphasis is slightly different. When May says it, it's about reassuring the Brexit elite in SW1 that she isn't going to backslide, and anxious Remainers and soft Brexiteers in the country that it will work out okay in the end.

When Merkel says it, she's setting out what the EU wants and the reality of third country status outside the European Union.  She's also, as with May, tilting to her own party and public opinion in Germany, which thinks that the UK was an awkward partner in the EU and is being even more awkward in the manner of its leaving.

It's a measure of how poor the debate both during the referendum and its aftermath is that Merkel's bland statement of reality - "A third-party state - and that's what Britain will be - can't and won't be able to have the same rights, let alone a better position than a member of the European Union" - feels newsworthy.

In the short term, all this helps Theresa May. Her response - delivered to a carefully-selected audience of Leeds factory workers, the better to avoid awkward questions - that the EU is "ganging up" on Britain is ludicrous if you think about it. A bloc of nations acting in their own interest against their smaller partners - colour me surprised!

But in terms of what May wants out of this election - a massive majority that gives her carte blanche to implement her agenda and puts Labour out of contention for at least a decade - it's a great message. It increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in May's words - the Tories your vote. You may be unhappy about the referendum result, you may usually vote Labour - but on this occasion, what's needed is a one-off Tory vote to make Brexit a success.

May's message is silly if you pay any attention to how the EU works or indeed to the internal politics of the EU27. That doesn't mean it won't be effective.

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

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