UKIP are blown away in Stoke Central by-election

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Stanley Matthews statue
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Are Stoke Central's voters influenced by NHS issues? Or Brexit?

It's had more unexpected twists and turns than many a roller-coaster ride.

So why shouldn't Stoke Central culminate in an epic weather event. The day of storm Doris blew to smithereens so many of Paul Nuttall's brave words: "Stoke Central is the Brexit Capital".

Oh really?

When I questioned him during the only live television debate on Sunday Politics (Sunday 12 February, still available on the iplayer) I reminded him that UKIP's 'unique selling point' was no longer unique. The Conservatives were a Brexit party too these days, and they were in a position to deliver it.

"Stoke Central is Brexit Central and it wants a true Brexiteer", he told me. "That's me".

Image source, PA
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A true Brexiteer: But it wasn't enough to enable UKIP'S Paul Nuttall to become MP for Stoke Central

So how does that square with his declaration, at the moment of his defeat in the early hours of Friday morning, that Stoke Central was only seventy-second on his party's 'hit list' of target seats?

Mr Nuttall took a huge risk in standing in this by-election so early in his leadership.

If UKIP couldn't win here, how now can they hope to neutralise the growing number of very pointed questions: "What's the point of UKIP now that Brexit's happening anyway?"

And even more awkwardly: "What's the point of Paul Nuttall himself?"

It will be hard for him to dispel suspicions that the party's best days are behind it now that Nigel Farage is no longer leader.

As his successor (but one) Mr Nuttall has sustained not only an election defeat but also some self-inflicted damage: first, over that house and the claim that he lived in Stoke and then, more damagingly, over Hillsborough and his false claim that he had lost close friends in the disaster.

Brexit: Is the party over?

Paradoxically, a constituency which voted two-to-one to leave the EU has now returned, in Gareth Snell, a Labour MP who has compared Brexit with a pile of something unmentionable.

Can it really be, as he said throughout the campaign, that it was more about "NHS Central" than the EU? The city's major acute hospital has recorded some of England's longest trolley waits. Significantly, Mr Snell identified the Royal Stoke University Hospital's budget deficit as his number one priority as the incoming MP.

In reality, of course, NHS and Brexit are both still major factors here. A year after Stoke Central registered a turnout of under 50% in the 2015 General Election (the lowest in the UK), the turnout in last summer's referendum was significantly higher, with an 80% Leave vote among those who ventured to the polling stations on the city's Bentilee housing estate.

Image source, PA
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Stoke residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit. They also voted for Gareth Snell - who called Brexit a pile of something not very pleasant

It is hard to imagine such an emphatic expression of public sentiment simply vanishing into thin air.

So how are we to account for this?

Look a little more closely into the result and you see that it was the Conservatives who succeeded in turning this from what was originally billed as a two-horse race into a genuine three-party contest. They increased their share of the vote to finish third with only 80 fewer votes than UKIP.

Which takes us back to the question I posed at the beginning about UKIP no longer being the only Brexit party in town.

Image source, Google
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Bentilee: Eighty per cent of voters in the referendum voted Leave

The Conservative candidate Jack Brereton went out of his way, time and again, to stress Theresa May's commitment to "a Brexit that works for everyone".

In the process, he helped to blunt the UKIP challenge sufficiently for Labour to hang on to a seat which has been one of their strongholds since its inception 67 years ago. Add together the UKIP and Conservative votes and you have a combined total of 10,387 against Labour's 7,852.

On this analysis, Brexit certainly doesn't look like a busted flush. But UKIP will have to work hard to dispel suggestions that they could well be.

What's more, any Conservative strategist would far rather see Gareth Snell taking his seat on those famous green benches than Paul Nuttall.

Sunday Politics Midlands

It all sets the scene for a vintage edition of Sunday Politics Midlands this weekend.

I will be joined live in the studio by Stoke Central's victorious MP-elect Gareth Snell for his first major televised interview. Also live from UKIP's Black Country heartlands, we'll hear from one of their three Midlands MEPs Bill Etheridge: what does the future hold for him and for them now that they are confirmed as still just a one-man-band at Westminster?

Also with me will be the Conservative MP for Cannock Chase, Amanda Milling and the Labour MP for Wolverhampton South West, Rob Marris.

And I hope you will join me too, in our usual 11.00 slot on BBC One this Sunday morning (Sunday 26 February 2017)