LONDON — The Conservative Party is confident of outperforming early projections and finishing at least second place in the upcoming by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central.
The initial consensus among most journalists and commentators when former Labour MP Tristram Hunt resigned from the Staffordshire seat was that the subsequent by-election would be a two-horse-race between Labour and UKIP.
However, Tory campaigners are increasingly confident that they can push UKIP into third place. They say that 25-year-old candidate Jack Brereton is a popular figure among locals, with his untarnished personal reputation proving to be appealing when compared to that UKIP’s Paul Nuttall and Labour’s Gareth Snell.
“People are taking a serious look at Jack,” a senior figure in the Conservative’s Stoke campaign told Business Insider on Wednesday.
“He’s the only local candidate out of the three. He’s got a proven track record of delivery. He’s a very good candidate.
“It’s been a Labour versus UKIP narrative but when we finished third [in 2015] we only lost by forty or so votes. We’ve seen lots of people on doorsteps who have voted Labour all their lives but are now voting for Jack.”
UKIP leader Nuttall was the early favourite to wrestle the Leave-voting seat from Labour’s grasp.
However, the row over his false claim that he lost personal friends in the Hillsborough disaster has damaged his reputation among local people, with questions about his dishonesty cropping up on doorsteps since the revelation.
“We are aware that people really care about the Hillsborough stuff,” the Conservative source said.
This chimes with what a figure close Labour’s Stoke campaign told Business Insider earlier this week. “Pretty much any by-election campaign in the North will see that wheeled out now. It’s hugely toxic,” they told us.
Labour’s Stoke campaign has been far from controversy-free, though. Snell has been forced to apologise for past tweets including one that described Brexit as “shit” and others making misogynistic remarks about various women.
UKIP’s perceived chance of winning Thursday’s by-election in Stoke was boosted early on by speculation that the Tories were putting most of their resources into the party’s Copeland campaign. The west Cumbrian seat was widely regarded as a very winnable seat for candidate Trudy Harrison amid declining Labour support in the area.
The Conservative Party figure who we spoke to on Wednesday rubbished this suggestion, though, pointing out that Brereton has met with Prime Minister Theresa May, Chancellor Philip Hammond and other senior ministers.
“We’ve been taking this campaign very seriously,” they said.
The by-elections in Stoke and Copeland on Thursday could have big ramifications for the parties involved.
Both seats have been held by Labour for well over half a century and a loss in either would put increased pressure on leader Jeremy Corbyn as the party continues to perform terribly in the polls. A loss in both would be a disaster.
For UKIP, failure to win in Stoke would raise questions about the party’s electoral aspirations going forward. Nuttall has in the space of just a few weeks gone from odds-on favourite to facing the possibility of a third or even fourth place finish. Former leader Nigel Farage last week described the by-election as “fundamental” to the party’s future.
As far as the Conservative Party is concerned Thursday’s by-elections offer plenty to gain but not a lot to lose. History says that it is unheard of for a ruling-party to make gains in midterm elections while all the pressure is on Labour to rally enough support to hold onto two seats that were once considered among the party’s safest.
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