The double by-election was a huge test not only for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but for UKIP; seeking to capitalise on their success in the EU referendum and with a chippy northerner at its helm in Paul Nuttall, UKIP were making a direct play for Labour voters as well as Tories.
For Corbyn this test couldn’t have been worse. Two by-elections, caused by the resignation of two of his fiercest critics, both leaving Parliament to pursue new careers; their resignations a damming assessment of Labour’s chances under his leadership.
By-elections are a headache at the best of times. They cost political parties a huge amount, in cash and people. For Labour, defending two Leave voting seats with small majorities, one where the economy is dependent on the nuclear industry which Corbyn is at best uncomfortable with and at worst against, this had all the makings of a catastrophe.
There is no doubt that losing Copeland is a disaster for Labour. But retaining Stoke Central will put the brakes, ever so slightly, on the Corbyn-must-go campaign.
Indeed Labour campaign strategists will be breathing a small sigh of relief this morning. The question on everyone’s mind has been whether Brexit would have the same colossal impact on voting behaviour as the Scottish independence referendum did north of the border, when politics was entirely reset. Old loyalties were broken, as voters turned their backs on decades of supporting Labour and switched to the SNP.
However, perhaps not surprisingly given the different circumstances, Brexit does not appear to be shifting the dynamics of politics in anywhere near the same way that the Scottish referendum did. This is good news for Labour at a time when it badly needs some.
If the news for Labour is mixed, then it was a disappointing night for UKIP. After a bad few months, they chose a leader in Paul Nuttall who worried both Conservatives and Labour. A break with the Farage era, he appeared able to reach out across the political divide and appeal to disenchanted voters of all persuasions.
Despite a brave decision to put himself forward as the candidate in Stoke, a disastrous campaign followed, which has left a huge question mark over not just UKIP’s ability to break through into mainstream elected politics, but also over Paul Nuttall’s personal integrity.
And what do these results mean for the Conservatives? The bar had been set fairly low for Theresa May, but arguably this was a real challenge for her to show she could capitalise on Labour’s weakness and take the country with her on the Brexit journey she has set out. The Prime Minister never expected to make much progress in Stoke and having taken Copeland which Labour has held since 1935, she has added to her majority and will be quietly happy this morning. The word historic is thrown around too liberally in politics, but in this case the Prime Minister can justifiably use it.