Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. Tory benefit proposals are stupid and cruel (Observer)

Barbara Ellen: The plan to make the unemployed work for their benefits is breathtakingly wrong

2. The bank wot won it? (Sunday Times)

Not until investment picks up can the Bank of England’s newfound optimism be justified, writes David Smith

3. David Cameron has a women problem (Independent)

Poll after poll shows they are deserting the Tories, and when interviewed by Red magazine, the PM managed to shoot himself in the foot, says Janet Street-Porter

4. Open government? Don't make me laugh (Observer)

David Cameron is boasting about the UK's transparent government. In fact there is more darkness than daylight, says Nick Cohen

5. Don’t bully the energy giants — here’s how to help the little guys (Sunday Times)

While my head knows that Ed Miliband’s idea of freezing energy bills could leave us with frozen homes, my heart can’t suppress a cheer at the thought of exacting some petty revenge, writes Camilla Cavendish

6. Christians are dying for us to help (Sunday Telegraph)

The West has been apathetic in its response to the persecution of Christians by Islamic extremists. But such apathy can have disastrous consequences, says Jenny McCartney

7. Porn has changed – for the worse. Even men have noticed (Independent)

The former editor of a lads' mag has changed his view of pornography, because of the possible effect on his son, but he has forgotten something, says Joan Smith

8. This joyous performance will do more for fashion's health than Femen stunts (Observer)
Rick Owens's designs for a team of athletes achieved far more during Paris fashion week than Femen's topless protest, says Bertie Brandes

9. David Cameron gears up to say hello again to Mondeo Man (Sunday Telegraph)
Far from lurching to the Right, the PM wants to reintroduce himself to the Tory voters who famously defected to Tony Blair, says Matthew d’Ancona

10. How Turkey blew its chance to lead this troubled region (Independent)

The country could have enhanced its influence and saved a lot of lives. It did the exact opposite, says Patrick Cockburn

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