The Copeland constituency is among the largest in the country but the Prime Minister was in and out of it in barely 45 minutes. She came to Bootle – the tiny Lake District village with one shop and no pub, not the sprawling Liverpool suburb – to do her bit to deliver what she still very much hopes will be a historic win for her party, stealing a by-election seat from Labour whilst the Conservatives are in Government and not opposition. But it didn’t go at all according to plan.
Her two big national advantages hold firm up here. First, they’re avowed Brexiteers, and second, they don’t exactly see Jeremy Corbyn as a Prime Minister in waiting.
But on the every-bit-as-important local matters, she faltered.
She couldn't even manage that most staple of political diets - the photo op, in which she grimaced and winced her way through a perfectly pleasant visit to a primary school to talk to Year Six pupils about a Lego competition.
But that was just a distraction, because in Copeland in 2017 there are two questions that count. The first is the future of the nuclear industry, on which an estimated 12,000 jobs in the constituency directly depend. And when 12,000 jobs directly depend on something in a community, every other job indirectly does too.
The second is the proposed closure of the maternity ward at West Cumberland Hospital, which would leave mums in labour an hour’s drive away from anything more specialised than a midwife.
In a television interview, inside the Church of England Primary School in the local candidates home village, she was asked four times if she agreed with the local Conservative candidate, Trudy Harrison, that these changes should not go ahead.
And four times, as is true to form for the Prime Minister, she dodged the answer.
Ms May said only that there had been “scaremongering about hospital services and the NHS by the Labour Party” and denied that West Cumberland hospital “is about to be closed.” But she refused to say she herself was opposed to the proposals, saying only that “What is important is that Trudy Harrison is a candidate who has made clear her views, not just to me but to health ministers.”
Secondly, the future of the long planned Moorside nuclear power plant was cast into significant doubt, when the Japanese conglomerate Toshiba posted £5bn losses in its nuclear energy businesses, costing its chief executive his job, and prompting an announcement that the company would withdraw from the nuclear industry outside Japan.
Toshiba is 60 per cent owner of Nu-Gen, the conglomerate that was meant to be building Moorside, on which everybody you meet in Copeland freely admits their lives and their children’s futures depend. After weeks of obfuscation, Jeremy Corbyn did give his backing to the new plant two weeks ago, but it is his three decades of opposition to nuclear power that has cut through around here, and it is all but suicidal. Nevertheless, clear and meaningful backing from the government that it will step in to save Moorside was again not forthcoming from the Prime Minister.
"The consortium involved in Moorside has been absolutely clear. They have reconfirmed their commitment to Moorside,” Ms May said, but the consortium behind Moorside have for all intents and purposes very publicly walked away from nuclear.
It doesn’t help either that the local Labour candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a doctor and a volunteer ambulance driver, who has, she says, “bluelighted down every road in the constituency” and understands better than almost anyone the dangers of the closures of the maternity ward and is not afraid to say so.
“With labour you know that things can go wrong in an instant,” she told The Independent. “[Under the proposals] they want to have midwives here that are highly trained medical professionals, delivering babies. But they will also be the ones saying, ‘This baby needs to come out’ or ‘this mother needs to see a doctor’ and that doctor is going to be an hour and a half away. Bed to theatre, or bed to bed, is an hour and a half, and we cannot allow that. In extreme circumstances babies needs to be got out and helped in minutes, not hours. It’s not on.”
Will Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and his very personal aversion to nuclear energy (a commitment to nuclear remains official party policy) be enough to kill off Labour in Copeland? It should be a simple question, but the answer – and the result – are as uncertain as ever.
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