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16 February 2017

Who’ll win next week’s by-elections?

Labour feels optimistic about Stoke, but Copeland is on a knife-edge. 

By Stephen Bush

How’s it looking in next week’s by-elections? There is increasing buoyancy in the Labour camp about the contest in Stoke-on-Trent, and the growing expectation is that they will see off Ukip. Turnout is expected to be low, which is likely to benefit Labour, thanks to their superior organisation.

On the Conservative side, they are feeling optimistic about winning Copeland. Theresa May wouldn’t have made a 700-mile round trip to the constituency yesterday if CCHQ didn’t think they had a chance of winning.

But it’s worth remembering when we talk about what the parties “know” is going on out in the country that Labour “knew” they would finish second with 250-288 seats at the last election while the Conservatives “knew” they would be the largest party with 300-315 seats. It could be that the PM spent a lot of time on a train yesterday to no good effect – and that her visit was dominated by questions from the press, including on ITV, about the future of the local health service may mean that the visit gained as much as it lost. 

In terms of the future of the leadership – which I discuss further in my column in this week’s magazine – the settled view of Corbynsceptic MPs is that they tried to get rid of their leader last year and only extended his shelf life.  But in the hothouse of Westminster, groupthink can easily dominate and moods can change quickly – strikingly, during the last attempt to unseat Corbyn, Corbynsceptic members drawn from the party’s grassroots warned against it, but were overruled by their parliamentary leaders.

If Stoke stays red, MPs will be less jittery as they will reassure themselves that Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear industry will not be a factor in their seats, and that the air is leaving the Ukip balloon.

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That said, if both seats are lost, don’t rule out an outbreak of panic among Corbyn’s internal opponents. Which, paradoxically, might be exactly what he needs in as far as the battle to secure the longterm future of the Corbyn project is concerned.