Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Labour has faced its demons, but the Tories are still ruled by theirs (Guardian)

Ed Miliband spent the past year laying building blocks for his policies, while the Conservatives wallowed in their old nastiness, writes Polly Toynbee.

2. Obama fails to correct Egyptian mistake (Financial Times)

The president did not undermine implicit US support for the military, writes Ian Bremmer.

3. Ignore the (other) advice, Ed. Be your own man (Times)

The Labour leader should argue for his egalitarian vision and policies that close the gap between rich and poor, says Philip Collins.

4. Forget the nostalgia for British Rail – our trains are better than ever (Guardian)

Passengers may be grumbling about the planned fare increases, but on balance rail privatisation has been a huge success, writes Ian Birrell.

5. How the wealthy keep themselves on top (Financial Times)

The more unequal a society, the greater the incentive for the rich to pull up the ladder behind them, writes Tim Harford.

6. The west must finally see Egypt as it is, not as we would like it to be (Independent)

The western world cannot afford an Egypt mired in protracted disorder, but the unpredictability of its neighbourhood excludes the usual treatment, writes Mary Dejevsky. 

7. Promote women, but not the wrong ones (Daily Telegraph)

David Cameron’s target of a third of his ministers being female risks a 'tokenism’ reshuffle, says Isabel Hardman. 

8. A German ally in the war against Brussels (Daily Mail)

How inconvenient it must be for the Prime Minister's opponents that he can now point to the support of the most influential country in mainland Europe, says a Daily Mail editorial. 

9. Is Ed Miliband's Labour Party prepared to do or say anything at all? (Independent)

Maybe the shadow cabinet have converted to a branch of Buddhism, writes Mark Steel. The only time they've tried to appear decisive was when they got into an argument with Unite.

10. François Hollande should have joined les grands départs (Times)

In a country devoted to its August holiday shutdown, the stay-at-home President has attracted only ridicule, writes Charles Bremner.

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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.