This Thursday is set to be a psephologist's dream with the biggest set of polls outside of a general election in UK history. Amid talk of a 'British midterms' the so-called 'Super Thursday' will see contests for Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, London's assembly and some 5,000 council seats across the country. But in Westminster at least one race looms above all others: the Hartlepool by-election and whether the Tories can make further in-roads into Labour's once impregnable red wall.
Boris Johnson's visit there today has set alarm bells ringing in Labour HQ as party managers would be unlikely to dispatch a sitting PM to a seat three days before polling unless there was a good chance of winning it. But even if Labour manage to cling on to the seat, the electoral fun won't stop there as another challenging by-election looks imminent for the party.
Incumbent MP Tracy Brabin is standing for the newly-created post of West Yorkshire's mayor and is the firm favourite to be elected this Thursday. Brabin, a former Coronation Street actress and onetime shadow culture secretary, has already declared if elected that she will stand down from Parliament, triggering a by-election in her Batley and Spen constituency. Last election Brabin had a majority of 6.6 per cent or 3,525 votes compared to Mike Hill in Hartlepool whose majority was 3,595 or 8.76 per cent.
As in Hartlepool, where the Brexit party's 25.8 per cent share of the vote was blamed for a Labour re-election, similar claims of 'splitting the Tory vote' were levelled here too. Alongside the Brexit party's 1,678 votes here, independent Paul Halloran won an impressive 12.2 per cent or 6,432 votes. Halloran, a former Batley Bulldogs rugby league player who campaigned heavily on delivering Brexit, has not announced if he will stand again but his criticisms of the Conservative candidate as a Kent carpetbagger last time should be noted by CCHQ if it hopes to gain this seat.
So how likely is a Tory win? In 2016 the seat voted 59.6 per cent Leave to Remain's 40.4 per cent and is located between Bradford, Leeds, Huddersfield and Wakefield in prime red wall territory. The key difference to Hartlepool is demographics which are thought to be less favourable to the Conservatives here. Speaking to pollsters, Mr S found widespread scepticism the Tories could gain this too, given the small swing to Labour nationally since December 2019. Leaving the unusual circumstances of Hartlepool aside, gains at by-elections for governing parties are extremely rare, having happened only five times since the Second World War with the most recent being Copeland in 2017.
Still, the choice of candidate here could be instructive in determining how closely fought the campaign ends up being. In Hartlepool, Labour's pick of former Stockton South MP Paul Williams appears to have been a mixed blessing with his track record as a GP winning plaudits unlike his staunchly Remainer views. Two names doing the rounds for Batley and Spen in Labour circles are Lisa Johnson of the GMB trade union and Jawad Khan who ran in the 2019 European elections and hails from the local area, with selection manoeuvres from some quarters already under way.
Steerpike wonders how many more hard-fought red wall contests Starmer will have to endure as he seeks to win back support in these formerly impenetrable Labour heartlands.