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20.02.17

Jam-eaters will decide Copeland. Based on her trip north, Theresa May has clearly never heard of them

It is easy to poke fun at Cumbria. The land that time forgot. Northern accents that can’t quite be placed – “I thought you were from Yorkshire”. Withnail and I going, “on holiday by mistake”. Lots of sausage. Little hip and happening.

Most people in Cumbria, I feel, look at Millom, a town of 8,000 people in the south of Copeland, scene of one of this week’s byelections, as the rest of the country looks at Cumbria – far-flung, incomprehensible. “It is,” I was once told by a friend from Workington, “a funny place, Millom, isn’t it?” Millom, in turn, redirects this perception to Bootle, a nearby village.

“What is it that you don’t have in Bootle? Electricity?”

Coming from Bootle, I grew accustomed to mocking enquiries such as this in the Millom schoolyard. At least, no one called me, “bad Bootle UKIP meff”. That is Paul Nuttall from Bootle, Merseyside – a more gritty and urban place.

The sitcom Porridge is set in a prison just outside Millom. A hapless guard bemoans losing his wife to, “the bright lights of Workington”. A lag, played by Ronnie Barker, sympathises that he, “can’t compete with that”. As much as the canned laughter indicates that the rest of the country find the notion of a cosmopolitan Cumbria oxymoronic, the Millom prison guard and my Workington friend would see themselves as coming from different places.

While there is a rivalry between Whitehaven, very much in the Copeland constituency, and Workington, a town just north that gives its name to a separate seat this side of the boundary review, they’d see each other as fellow jam-eaters and Millom and Bootle as remote outposts.

The bulk of Copeland are jam-eaters. They are born (like me) in West Cumberland Hospital, they work (like my Dad for 50 years) at the Sellafield nuclear facility, and they usually vote Labour. As politics is a numbers game, and there are more jam-eaters than anything else, this by-election will be decided by jam-eaters.

When the prime minister last week visited Copeland, she might have gone to Sellafield to give Copeland’s nuclear ambitions a prime ministerial lift. She might have gone to the hospital to give her personal guarantee that it won’t be downgraded. She might have done both of these things – and, in doing so, done everything in her considerable power to influence the decisive issues of this byelection.

Instead the prime minster squandered her political capital, and wasted a day in which she might otherwise, based upon the reports that emanate from a Downing Street that already gives off a bunker vibe, have been failing to take decisions and effectively delegating responsibility.

The prime minster visited my primary school in Bootle, fluffed the inevitable hospital question, uncomfortably played Lego with kids, and did nothing to underline the Tory commitment to nuclear.

Perhaps the prime minster was dazzled by the bright lights of Whitehaven and Workington but it was odd to travel so far and do all media in a place removed from the jam-eater citadels, while intervening so ineffectively on the by-election’s crucial issues – indeed, in the case of the hospital, actively damaging the Tory case by failing to give straight answers.

While, as prime ministers prefer to avoid association with losing causes, her appearance must signal Tory confidence about their chances in Copeland, the visit was so botched that the possibility remains that the Tories are capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The reasons, in any case, for Uncut anticipating a Labour victory in Copeland largely still hold.

Something we didn’t really factor in, though, is the role of the Liberal Democrats. Lack of whole hearted advocacy for nuclear has historically rendered the Liberal Democrats irrelevant in West Cumbria. But Brexit has given them a new purpose across the country. And the town of Keswick, less jam-eater and more Lake poets, recently reallocated to Copeland from Workington, gives them a foothold of some traditional support.

It remains difficult to envisage the Liberal Democrats winning the seat – but whether they draw support from Labour or the Tories may be decisive. Ditto UKIP.

These shifting sands heighten unpredictability but Labour have a candidate, Gillian Troughton, whose backstory plays well against the central issues of the by-election, and have sensibly made the hospital the centrepiece of her campaign. Hopefully, this keeps the seat red. The notion of it being anything else fills me with foreboding.

Incidentally, it is, actually, gas that Bootle doesn’t have. It is off the grid. Like the prime minister’s visit.