Are the Conservatives in danger of squandering an historic opportunity in Hartlepool?

It's just one election among hundreds next week, for just one MP among 650 in the House of Commons.

Yet, as by-elections often do, Hartlepool has taken on huge significance.

I thought locals would be fed up with all the fuss, but have been surprised to hear many enjoying some attention that they feel is long overdue.

Several people have said exactly the same thing to me - that you don't travel through Hartlepool to get anywhere, it's off on its own - and often feels neglected.

That is reflected in a desire for change. But what from?

For 57 years they've had a Labour MP; for the last 11 a Conservative government.

Just under 70% in the town voted to get out of the EU - the highest proportion in the North East.

Labour's prevarication around the issue, and Boris Johnson's promise to get it done, saw the Tories gain seven seats around the North East at the general election.

It appears the only reason that Hartlepool didn't join that list was because the Brexit Party performed so strongly here and split the leave vote.

So this by-election now is the first big test of whether December 2019 was just a glorious moment in time for the Tories, or part of a more fundamental shift, with Labour no longer the natural party of this kind of working-class town.

The Conservatives and their candidate Jill Mortimer are still talking up the opportunities they say Brexit presents, such as with the new freeport Hartlepool will be on the edge of.The Brexit Party have reshaped themselves as Reform UK, with their candidate John Prescott (not the former deputy Prime Minister) fighting new causes like lowering taxes.

Labour's choice of candidate here, Dr Paul Williams, presents a real test of just how far things have moved on. He was an ardent remainer, but has also been treating Covid patients in the town over the last year, and is pushing for more services to return to the local hospital.

With lockdown easing and increasing numbers getting their jab, there were predictions of the Conservatives enjoying a 'vaccine bounce' at the ballot box this spring.

A couple of polls over the last month have suggested Hartlepool was the Tories' to lose. They might now be in the process of doing exactly that, thanks to all of the questions suddenly swirling around the Prime Minister's conduct.

Speaking to people in the town this week and last, it's clear those Westminster stories about his flat refurbishment and comments he denies making about letting "bodies pile high" are getting people's attention, though there is real disagreement on how true they are and how much they matter.

This Covid-time election was expected to mean record postal voting, but very few people say they have cast their ballot already. What struck me more than anything is, with a week to go, how many are still undecided on who to vote for. It's a truism that those in the middle decide elections, but it appears more valid than ever.

Things can change very slowly and very fast in politics.

There are 16 candidates running to be the next member of parliament for Hartlepool.

Here are the candidates with the description given for each:

  • David Bettney - Social Democratic Party

  • The Incredible Flying Brick - The Official Monster Raving Loony Party

  • Hilton Dawson - The North East Party

  • Gemma Evans - Women's Equality Party

  • Rachel Featherstone - The Green Party candidate

  • Adam Gaines - Independent

  • Andrew Hagon - Liberal Democrat

  • Steve Jack - Freedom Alliance. No Lockdowns. No Curfews.

  • Chris Killick - [no description]

  • Sam Lee - Independent

  • Claire Martin - Heritage Party

  • Jill Mortimer - Conservative Party Candidate

  • John Prescott - Reform UK

  • Thelma Walker - Independent

  • W. Ralph Ward-Jackson - Independent

  • Paul Williams - Labour Party