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Will Storm Doris affect turnout in the Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland by-elections?

The Met Office has warned of gale force winds on Thursday. 

Voters in Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland will turn out on Thursday 23 February to cast their vote in two hotly contested by-elections, where the incumbent Labour party is clinging on.

But they may feel less inclined to do so, if the Met Office is correct. It has predicted that Storm Doris will shake the UK on Thursday, with both Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland in the firing line

It's a commonly-held belief that adverse weather can affect the number of voters who make the effort to head to the polls. Ahead of the EU rerendum, the Telegraph ran a news article suggesting that thunder storms on the day could boost the Leave campaign, "which is most likely to benefit from a low turnout". Labour activists will be particularly nervous in Stoke-on-Trent Central, which has the distinction of being the sole constituency in 2015 where the majority of the electorate did not vote.

Even Anthony Howard once said that evening rain before the polls close "has always been a frightening prospect for Labour", as working-class voters would often go to the polls between tea and 10pm.

But does the weather actually have much of an impact? While evidence certainly suggests that it does in the US, a study published by Democratic Audit based on voter turnout in Sweden suggests that, as long as voting is convenient, weather does not affect turnout.

"Previous studies," the authors write, "focused on the United States, a country where the costs associated with voting are high in a comparative perspective". 

In Sweden, where voting is easier  registration is not required and election day is on a weekend – the results are different. "Even when using datasets covering almost 150,000 persons and very detailed rain data, we do not find any meaningful effects of weather conditions" the report says.

Using the same metric of difficulty, voting is "easier" in the UK than America, but more difficult than Sweden. So what happens in the UK?

According to Stephen Fisher, a politics researcher at Oxford University, there is little correlation between good weather and voting patterns. He told the BBC in 2002 that data from the last 15 general elections showed no link.

Even if there was some relation between the weather and turnout, Fisher points out, a higher proportion of people voting by postal ballot would diminish the effect.

There is one caveat, however. "If you had a January snowstorm", says John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde, "it would make a difference but for the most part the weather is mildly inclement at these times of year [when general elections are held]. So you might need to take a brolly with you or you might have sunshine but you won't have a howling gale or snow or serious travel disruption."

That last point is important. While rain might not put people off voting, difficulties getting to the polling station can. So a truly chaotic storm could affect a result.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.