Before any important English by-election, I always try to work out which result would be best for us from a strategic point of view. ("Strategic" isn't really the right word for something we have no control over, but you know what I mean.) There are often arguments pointing in more than one direction, but for yesterday's double-header in Copeland and Stoke I had come to the firm conclusion that the most desirable outcome would be two Labour wins, and that Copeland was the more important of the two contests. This was my reasoning...
* A win for the Tories in Copeland would reverse the cut in their slender majority they suffered at Richmond Park, and thus lessen the SNP's bargaining power in the Commons. It would also reduce the chances of the majority being completely wiped out (or very substantially reduced) before 2020.
* Although a win for UKIP in Stoke would not officially increase the government majority, it would probably slightly weaken the chances of the government suffering defeats on the floor of the Commons, because ad hoc anti-government coalitions are harder to cobble together if UKIP are an indispensable part of them.
* It shouldn't have to be this way, but the SNP, UKIP and the Lib Dems are locked in a dogfight for recognition as the most important third party in the eyes of the London media. Getting their leader into parliament would be a coup for UKIP and might weaken the SNP's hand somewhat.
* Whether it's because Jeremy Corbyn is genuinely a poor leader, or whether it's because Labour MPs and Labour-friendly commentators have made it impossible for him to lead the party effectively, there can't be much doubt that he has become an asset for the SNP and the wider independence movement, and that it would now be desirable for him to remain in harness for as long as humanly possible. Defeat for Labour in one or both by-elections might hasten his departure date, and would therefore be a bad thing.
So taking all of those factors into consideration, what actually happened yesterday was grim news, although it could have been even worse if Stoke had fallen to UKIP. The other consolation is that the slight strengthening of the government majority may make a snap general election prior to 2020 less likely. A working Tory majority of 16 is not a great situation to find ourselves in, and it offers only limited opportunities for the SNP to hold the balance of power on individual issues. But it's a hell of a lot better than a majority of 200 - which is the sort of disaster we'd be looking at if there was an election any time soon.
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