LONDON — Theresa May is set to visit Copeland this week with the Conservatives feeling increasingly confident of snatching the seat from Labour at next week’s crucial by-election.
Tory candidate Trudy Harrison is currently odds-on to win the Cumbrian seat on Thursday, February 23. This is despite that the fact that Copeland has been in Labour’s control since 1931.
But this time around the situation is different for Labour. Copeland is a quintessential “heartland” seat. It’s a pro-Brexit, working-class, socially conservative stronghold, hundreds of miles away from metropolitan London.
Immigration is a huge concern here, while the area’s dependence on the nearby Sellafield nuclear power station means that Jeremy Corbyn is viewed with at best suspicion and at worst with hostility. “We don’t do Corbyn here,” a local councillor told Business Insider when we visited the area in December.
Labour’s newfound vulnerability here has the Tories feeling confident of inflicting a huge blow on Labour. It is pretty much unheard of for a governing party to gain a seat midway through Parliament — nevermind in an area that has been held by the main opposition for the best part of a century.
This is why the prime minister’s upcoming visit could very well play a big part in determining the outcome next week.
“It’s really 50/50,” a source close to Labour’s Copeland campaign told us on Wednesday.
“People think it will swing with the local paper or May’s visit.”
May’s visit is a clear indication that the Conservatives are pumping more energy and resources into this west Cumbrian seat than they ever have before. Tory candidates like Stephen Haraldsen who have stood in Copeland in the past have suffered from a lack of funding from the string-pullers in the Conservative Party HQ. Not this time.
Corbyn, John McDonnell, and a host of senior Labour figures have made the 300-mile trip to Copeland in recent weeks but it doesn’t get much bigger than a visit from the prime minister.
Harrison, a former officer for the Copeland Borough Council, is doing battle with Gillian Troughton for the seat.
Troughton is a former ambulance driver with years of experience as a local councillor. Predictably, but wisely, she has put the NHS at the forefront of the campaign, with cuts to the local West Cumberland Hospital hospital a big issue for people in the area. She has also managed to maintain sufficient distance between the local campaign and Corbyn’s national leadership, despite a number of visits to the area from the veteran socialist.
As Business Insider reported earlier this year, there was concern among Copeland Labour Party figures that close association with Corbyn could damage the party’s chances of holding the seat, with Corbyn being a divisive figure with party members and the local public body alike.
“If it is an election on the NHS, we’ll win. If it’s an election on Corbyn, we’re f—-d,” a former Labour MP told us.
But Troughton’s success in keeping the local conversation focused on the NHS rather than Corbyn’s leadership has those close to the campaign quietly confident of holding the seat.
“It will be close (it always is), but we’ll keep it. Virtually everything on the doorstep has been about health, with a little bit of nuclear and basically nothing on Brexit,” a source working on the campaign told us. “A lot more positive than the doom and gloom some have been peddling.”
Another source told us that the party expects to hold on to Copeland by a narrow margin of around 500 votes.
Meanwhile, in Stoke, where a by-election will take place on the same day, the party is feeling slightly more confident about victory. The same source told us that Labour estimates that it will see off UKIP’s Paul Nuttall with a winning margin of around 5,000 people. Nuttall is the biggest name in the running but false claims he has made about losing close friends at the Hillsborough disaster has overshadowed his campaign this week.