Phrases such as ‘must-win’ and ‘do-or-die’ have often been used to define the challenge facing parties in UK by-elections. Rarely, however, could such terms have legitimately applied to two different leaders. Yet one bad result on Thursday night could prove ruinous for either Jeremy Corbyn or Paul Nuttall.
It is hard to recall a night quite like it. Usually stand-alone, by-elections are often one-sided non-events and rarely have profound significance. Here we have two highly competitive contests on the same night, both of which will provide much-needed clarity about party politics and voter intention in the post-Brexit era. We even have a unique Copeland and Stoke By Election Double market.
Were it not for the referendum – even assuming Labour MPs Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt had still triggered these contests by resigning mid-term – neither Copeland or Stoke would have attracted much attention. The Betfair market would point towards predictable defences – just as Labour managed in 17 of 18 mid-term defences since losing power in 2010.
Tories poised to exploit Corbyn weakness for historic gain in Copeland
Instead, the Copeland market strongly points towards the first gain by a governing party since 1981. The money has been relentless for the Conservatives, who were backed down to a low of 1.29, equivalent to a 77% likelihood, before settling around 1.4 (71%).
If the money is right and Labour lose a seat they’ve held for 70 years, it would surely deepen the crisis surrounding Corbyn’s leadership. Against a backdrop of appalling personal ratings, a double-digit national polling deficit and his small band of supportive MPs dwindling by the day, Corbyn is already trading around 1.4 (71%) to leave post before the next election, and 4.4 (22%) by the end of March. Defeat in either by-election could prove a tipping point.
The demographics and politics of the Cumbrian seat – older, whiter, pro-Brexit – do not bode well. This is precisely this type of voter that is alienated from Corbyn, and drawn closer towards Theresa May than any Tory leader this century. Perhaps most significantly, the nuclear industry is the main employer, making Corbyn’s longstanding ambivalence towards it a massive handicap.