In the hunt: Stoke Central by-election for all parties

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Will Tristram Hunt's departure lead the way for more MPs to jump from the Labour ship.

Farewell to the only Tristram in Stoke.

"He's not from round here". That was how many Potteries people greeted the news that Tristram Hunt had landed in Stoke-on-Trent Central with the aid of the proverbial parachute, during the run-up to the 2010 general election.

And by way of an epitaph, that was also the word on the streets on Friday the Thirteenth when he announced his decision to resign his seat in favour of his "dream job" as Director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

He was a celebrated television historian and author long before he was a politician and his new job carries double his salary as an MP.

But it has still come as a significant shock to the body politic that someone with his obvious talents and long-term potential should see little point in persevering despite the frustrations with life under Jeremy Corbyn, no matter how distinguished that 'V & A' role.

A post-Blairite fish out of water he may have seemed, but he rapidly established himself as a committed and articulate advocate of Stoke's ceramics industry.

It is fitting that the 'V & A's' outstanding Wedgwood collection is displayed at Barlaston so he will not be severing his links with the city altogether. But he will be remembered chiefly as a popular and polished Shadow Education Secretary in Ed Miliband's Shadow Cabinet, one of the poster boys on the Right of the Parliamentary Labour Party: but also, perhaps, as the man who muffed his lines when they mattered most.

Image caption Wedgwood production was moved to the Barlaston site in 1940. The museum will be looked after by Tristram Hunt at the V&A.

In the immediate aftermath of Labour's 2015 election defeat other potential leadership candidates set to work marshalling their campaign teams and preparing their manifestos. But Mr Hunt, with donnish circumspection and caution, called for the party not to lurch into a divisive leadership election but for a period of sober reflection, and a thoroughgoing inquiry into the party's failings. He who hesitates....

He may have been right: "You don't select the lead singer before you've decided what you're going to sing," he told me. But for good or ill, that's not how our politics works.

Add to this the likelihood that Mr Hunt would have faced a de-selection battle if and when Stoke's three seats become two under the forthcoming review of Parliamentary boundaries. It is hardly surprising that he should be accused of jumping before being pushed.

What is not in dispute is that his departure sets up a fascinating by-election. It will be our first in this part of the country since 2004, when Terry Davis stood down in Birmingham Hodge Hill to become Secretary General of the Council of Europe. So this is not the first time that the lure of a top job has proved more attractive than Westminster politics.

With speculation rife that 15 to 20 Labour MPs may be considering following Tristram Hunt's lead, the question is whether or not weary resignation could develop into real resignations. One joke already doing the rounds is that it's the head-hunters who pose the biggest danger to the party now.

The Brexit factor

Beyond this, there are apparent similarities between Hodge Hill and Stoke Central. Both have large concentrations of social and economic deprivation and both have long been considered rock solid Labour seats. But in this fast-changing world of post-referendum politics there is no such thing as conventional wisdom.

Image caption The 1935 model of a monkey by artist John Skeaping is one of 14 he designed for Wedgwood and is in the museum at Barlaston. The exhibition will be looked after by the V&A.

There may also be no such thing as a safe Labour constituency. Stoke recorded one of the highest proportion of Leave votes anywhere in the UK, just under 70%, in defiance of Labour's official policy to Remain in the European Union. On the defining issue of our times, a significant wedge has been driven between the Labour Party and large areas of traditional 'core' support. Even before Brexit, they had seen their majority in Stoke Central fall from 20,000 in 1997 to barely 5,000 in 2015.

We all know by-elections have a rich and colourful pageantry, behaving very differently from general elections. But there is more than the usual amount of pressure on Labour to demonstrate that they are still in touch with voters here. A defeat would certainly be entered as a significant debit in Jeremy Corbyn's leadership ledger. But so soon after his emphatic re-election he had no trouble dismissing out of hand the suggestion by Andrew Marr that he would be "toast" if Labour lose this, and the by-election in Copeland.

Labour are the clear favourites. But all the other main parties have something genuinely worth fighting for. UKIP finished second here in 2015 and can be expected to throw everything they have at this campaign. They need to prove that they are not a busted flush now that their over-arching ambition on Brexit has been accomplished and Nigel Farage is no longer the leader. No wonder speculation is rife that his successor, Paul Nuttall, is set to be adopted as UKIP's candidate there. We'll know for sure on Saturday morning. The former leader Stoke City Council Mohammed Pervez is thought to be a possible Labour candidate.

The Conservatives, meantime, will point out they they were pipped to second place by UKIP last time by only the narrowest of margins. Both parties achieved just a tick short of 23% of the vote. As Theresa May starts to signal a more emphatic EU departure than many had expected, they will be vying with UKIP for that Brexit vote. It will also be an important test of her party's appeal to disaffected Labour supporters with her commitments on "burning injustice" and her messages to those "just about managing".

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Tristram Hunt is to be director at the Victoria & Albert Musuem. It's his 'dream job'.

If the Liberal Democrats are to recover from their present low point, not even they would expect significant encouragement in Stoke. As we have seen, it is the most enthusiastic city for Leave and therefore just about the last place to deliver a repeat of Richmond. But with Labour under so much strain, UKIP squabbling with the Conservatives squabbling over rival interpretations of Brexit, the Lib Dems will do their best to conjure-up whatever support there may be for an unambiguously anti-Brexit campaign.

Our political reporter Kathryn Stanczyszyn will be finding out if Stoke-on-Trent Central really does offer something for everyone.

See what she discovers there in this weekend's Sunday Politics Midlands. With me in the studio will be senior figures from the three biggest parties which have most at stake in this by-election: Philip Dunne, the Health Minister and Conservative MP for Ludlow; Jess Phillips, the outspoken Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley; and one of our three West Midlands UKIP MEPs, Jim Carver.

And I hope you can join us too, in our usual 11.00 slot on BBC One this Sunday morning, 22nd January 2017.