The first anniversary of Sir Keir Starmer’s spell as Labour leader came at a difficult time. His net-approval ratings have tumbled into negative territory thanks to what his critics describe as a flip-flopping failure to hold the prime minister to account during the pandemic. After giving an interview to the Daily Telegraph last week branding vaccine passports “un-British”, Starmer is now set to “support” the use of domestic Covid certifications in certain circumstances.

Next up, Starmer’s campaign to win back the party’s supposed heartlands – following the cataclysm of the 2019 general election – is in a state of disarray. The looming Hartlepool by-election (6 May) is a test of Starmer’s popularity in the Red Wall. But a poll by the Communication Workers Union (CWU) for Survation, helpfully passed to The Times, predicts a Conservative landslide, in what would be only the third time in half a century that a governing party has made a gain in a by-election.

It makes for depressing reading for those in Southside, party HQ. Labour’s candidate is a Remainer who once tweeted about “Tory milfs” (whatever that is). According to Survation, Labour’s Paul Williams has made a small four-point gain (42 per cent) on the Labour share in 2019, thanks to the collapse of Reform, previously the Brexit Party. However, the Tories are up an astonishing 20-points (49 per cent) with farmer Jill Mortimer as their election hopeful. The Northern Independence Party (NIPs) are on 2 per cent, although their most recent application to become a party with the Electoral Commission seems to have been rejected.

A health warning. Any by-election poll like this should be treated with suspicion. Constituency polls are hard to do. The margin of error is fairly high, according to Keiran Pedly of rival Ipsos MORI, and with exactly a month of campaigning left to go anything is possible.

The Labour high command is braced for an embarrassing defeat though, briefing that this was always going to be a tough seat for Labour – in Hartlepool! Even Peter Mandelson won there repeatedly. 

The tribunes of the Corbynite far left are already saying defeat would be proof that Starmer has failed by deviating from the true Socialist path. By that curious logic, Hartlepool is about to go Tory because Labour is insufficiently Marxist. This seems a stretch.

A mildly sympathetic senior Tory, a veteran of the William Hague era when a new Tory leader was flattened by the New Labour express no matter what he tried, sympathises in a humane spirit. He says that there is little Starmer can do: “It isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. He’s leader of the opposition up against a phenomenon in his pomp. Then it was Blair. Now it’s Boris.”