Prime Minister Boris Johnson would normally struggle to find support in a place like Hartlepool, in the northeast of England. Labour has held the town since 1964, with majorities in five figures as recently as 2001 when New Labour Peter Mandelson was MP. However, on June 23, 2016, Britons voted to leave the European Union.
On May 6 Hartlepool will hold a by-election for a new MP, and polls from Survation and Ipsos MORI have put the Conservatives in front.
That is mainly as votes from the now-defunct Brexit Party at the last election are expected to transfer to Mr Johnson in a Labour northern heartland where a Tory win would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
The town backed leaving the EU by a thumping 70 percent.
The vote will be a critical test for Mr Johnson after his landslide victory in 2019 paved the way to take Britain out of the European Union after years of wrangling.
It will be a key indicator of whether Mr Johnson’s initial popularity has survived a pandemic that left Britain with the worst death toll in Europe, and whether Brexit supporters still buy into his promise to “level up” the economy.
As anticipation for the election grows, in an exclusive interview with Express.co.uk, Labour councillor and general secretary of Labour Leave Brandon Chilton has criticised the trade agreement the Prime Minister struck with the EU.
He said: “I am still very concerned about the deal Boris Johnson negotiated.
“Part of our country has essentially been carved off: Northern Ireland.
“There is a border down the Irish Sea and people trading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are experiencing extreme paperwork.
“We are also seeing violence in Belfast and other cities, and while I don’t attribute this to the Brexit deal, I do think it is a contributing factor.”
The Brexiteer added: “I think Boris Johnson needs to take a firm line.
“He needs to show some leadership, bring parties together and explore how we can bring Northern Ireland back under British administration, custom and regulation.”
The origins of the recent protests in Belfast have been attributed in part to resentment among the loyalist community at the Northern Ireland Protocol – part of the treaty that saw the UK leave the EU.
However, the police’s recent decision not to prosecute senior lawmakers from Irish republican party Sinn Fein for breaking COVID-19 rules, in order to attend the funeral of high-profile former Irish Republican Army member Bobby Storey, has also been cited as lighting the tinderbox.
Northern Ireland is not the only thing Mr Chilton is concerned about, though.
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He added: “I am also worried about fishing.
“Shellfish producers in Kent still have got problems getting their goods into France, for example.
“We haven’t completely got back the territorial waters that we were promised.
“And everything is still up for review in five years.”
Mr Chilton concluded: “Although Brexit is done, it is not over.
“This will be a discussion, the extent to which we move closer or further away from Europe, that we will have for years.”