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  1. ITV Report

Copeland: the by-election that became a curse, and a pre-cursor for what was to follow

Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street Credit: PA
  • Blog by Daniel Hewitt, ITV News Political Correspondent.

Would Theresa May have called an early General Election if she’d lost in Copeland on February 23rd?

The Tories historic by-election victory in a Labour heartland of 80 years appeared to confirm what the polls were saying, and what almost everyone in Westminster was thinking: Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, and swathes of working class, Brexit-voting Labour seats are there for the taking.

Mrs May became the first sitting Prime Minister since Mrs Thatcher in 1982 to gain a seat from an opposition party – Labour MPs in the north of England with slim majorities, even those with big, healthy majorities, were in despair.

When Theresa and Philip walked the hills of North Wales on that now infamous weekend in April, Copeland must have been on her mind. How could it not? It was tangible evidence of what could be.

That by-election feels like a very, very long time ago. For Theresa May, it must feel a lifetime.

I’ve thought a lot about Copeland recently. I covered that by-election for two months, and spent a lot of time up there. Like the General Election, it was clear from the outset that Labour was on the back foot.

In Whitehaven, the town’s main conurbation, we struggled to find Labour voters. In the first week of January, even before a date for the by-election had been set, people in the street would bring up Jeremy Corbyn, unprompted and unimpressed.

Jeremy Corbyn Credit: PA

The main issue was his opposition to nuclear in an area that depended so heavily on Sellafield’s nuclear power plant. Much of the negativity had been planted not by the Tories but by the outgoing Labour MP Jamie Reed, who had spent much of the past 18 months telling anyone who would listen that his own leader was both opposed to Sellafield and an unelectable disaster.

But it wasn’t just nuclear. Lots of people had simply fallen out of love with a Labour Party that looked divided, and disconnected from their lives. You could find plenty of people professing respect for the alternative, Mrs May - folks who had never voted Conservative in their lives, who were now seriously considering it, because they liked her. She looks “tough”, “she looks like a leader”, “she’ll deliver Brexit” – you might even say strong and stable.

Sellafield Credit: ITV Border

Then the campaign proper began. Labour found its feet, and homed in on their only hope – the NHS. Specifically, the potential downgrading of maternity services at the local hospital, which unlike many previous Labour by-election campaigns, was a distinct possibility and a genuine worry locally.

This is where the Tories made their first error, and one Tory candidates may recognise from the General Election. Without consulting the candidate, the party printed her first leaflets, which failed to mention maternity services at West Cumberland hospital.

I learned at the time this was a source of immense frustration for the candidate Trudy Harrison, whose four daughters were born at that hospital and who was unequivocally opposed to any downgrading of services. She knew how big an issue this was locally, she knew it was coming up on the doorstep, and she was not happy.

It provided Labour with an opening and a very easy attack line. Labour only had the hospital to go at (a senior source later admitted to me that without the hospital they would have lost by a lot more) and a Tory own goal let them back in.

Then came the second mistake, and one that would be hallmark of the Conservatives election campaign. That mistake was Theresa May herself, and her messaging.

On Sunday 12th February, the Tories began briefing journalists that the Prime Minister may go to Copeland to support the campaign. This is practically unheard of – Prime Ministers don’t tend to directly involve themselves in by-elections, especially a Conservative Prime Minister in a Labour heartland like Copeland. The Tories were clearly confident, very confident, and hopeful that a final push from the PM would seal the deal.

On the Tuesday, the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) confirmed Mrs May would indeed be travelling north to the Cumbrian village of Bootle. What followed was a lesson in how not to organise and execute a Prime Ministerial visit.

First of all, they refused to tell national press where she was going. Two newspaper journalists contacted me to ask if I knew where she was, because CCHQ wouldn't tell them. One national broadcaster turned up, and was turned away without an interview.

Secondly, she wasn’t there to campaign. Like the now infamous stage-managed, highly choreographed events that would become her hallmark, this was twenty minutes in a tiny village primary school speaking to a handful of teachers, in private. The only photo opportunity was limited to 30 seconds of the Prime Minister awkwardly interacting with pupils demonstrating their latest technology project, which delivered snappers with a series of cringe-worthy photos of Mrs May grimacing, seemingly bewildered and disapproving of the children's work.

But then came the biggest error of them all – when it came to delivering her message to the media, Theresa May had absolutely nothing to say. The Tories had spent three days briefing she would go to Copeland, but appeared to have given no thought to what she would talk about when she got there. In place of a genuine announcement or any concrete answers to the constituencies burning issues, the PM brought empty rhetoric.

The Tories had raised expectations, and then failed to meet them.

The day before, Toshiba had cast doubts over its commitment to a new nuclear development in the constituency, putting at risk the creation of thousands of new jobs. The PM was asked: would the government directly intervene to underwrite that investment? Nothing, no answer.

Is the Prime Minister opposed to the downgrading of maternity services at West Cumberland hospital? Again, evasion and equivocation. This is the transcript of my interview:

Me:There is a big fear over the downgrading of maternity services at West Cumberland Hospital. Your candidate has said her four daughters were born there and she’s totally against these changes. Will you support her and say that you too are against these proposals?

Theresa May:There has been a lot of scaremongering about hospital services and the NHS here by the Labour Party. There is no truth in the suggestion that A&E at West Cumberland Hospital is about to be closed. Trudy Harrison our candidate does indeed know the importance of these services. She is opposed to the downgrading of these services.

Me:Are YOU opposed to them, Prime Minister?

May:What is important is that Trudy Harrison is a candidate who has made clear her views, not just to me but to health ministers. She would be the strongest voice for Copeland.

Me:Are you against those proposals though?

May:The Labour party has been completely misleading about what I’ve said about maternity services.

Me:So what DO you say about them?

May:Trudy Harrison has made very clear to me the importance of those services. There is an issue about recruitment and retention of doctors, Trudy has come up with a very sensible idea, that there should be a professionally-led review into that issue and that is something that the health minister is looking at.

Trudy Harrison beat her Labour rival Credit: PA

That disastrous exchange was on local ITV News that night. She was on local BBC radio and local BBC Television too, not answering the questions that mattered, not really acknowledging their importance. Our interview with her was picked up by national newspapers, who ran the story that Mrs May had dodged the maternity services question four times, coupled with those unkind images in the classroom.

More worryingly, the following day the constituency's most-read local newspaper ran with the front page headline “The Lady’s Not for Talking”.

Theresa May and her team (a phrase I supsect we heard the last of) thought she could simply turn up, and that would be enough, just as they thought she could just call the election, and seven weeks later, they would win.

What was meant to be a boost for the Conservative campaign in Copeland became a boost for Labour. They were delighted with the visit, which further fuelled their claims that maternity wards would be packed up and sent down the road as soon as the Tories were declared victorious.

In the crucial final days of the campaign, the momentum had swung away from the Conservatives, thanks to the intervention of the Prime Minister and yet another Tory own goal. Speaking to voters around that time, there was a noticeable drop in enthusiasm for the Conservative leader.

In the end, those own goals did not prove fatal. The Tories won, by more than two thousand votes, and the rest is history.

Yes, Copeland is in many ways a unique seat, and by-elections are different beasts to General Elections.

But in victory, little attention was paid to the fundamental mistakes made by the Tory machine and by its leader. Those mistakes were forgotten, the lessons not learned. Theresa May and her team remained complacent and they remained arrogant, and on messaging and media strategy, they were to make those same mistakes all over again.