Ukip leader ready to fight 'Brexit capital' by-election in Labour test
Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will fight a by-election in "the capital of Brexit" in a major test of his plan to replace Labour as the party of the working-class in the Midlands and the north of England.
Mr Nuttall was confirmed as Ukip's candidate for the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election after the other 10 people on the shortlist withdrew from the contest.
His decision to stand indicates Ukip's belief it has a strong chance of taking the former Labour stronghold on February 23.
The by-election was triggered by the resignation of leading Labour moderate Tristram Hunt, who stood down as an MP to become director of London's V&A museum.
Nr Nuttall will be seeking the support of some of the 65.7% of Stoke voters who backed Leave in last year's EU referendum and he promised them "nobody will fight harder than me" to ensure a "full" Brexit.
He sought to exploit Labour divisions over the vote to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaties to start the exit process and accused Jeremy Corbyn's party of trying to "water down Brexit".
"If I am elected as your MP, it will send a signal to all those who are trying to put spanners in the works that their jobs are on the line," he told local party activists.
"In particular those Labour MPs who represent working-class communities which voted Leave and now want to water down Brexit.
"They will be put on notice that if they seek to frustrate the will of the people they may as well be asking for their P45s in the post."
But in a sign of the battle lines likely to be drawn in the by-election, Labour, which will choose a candidate on January 25, highlighted several previous statements from Mr Nuttall in which he backed privatisation and a market-driven approach in the NHS.
Mr Nuttall sought to pre-empt the party's attacks on Ukip by insisting he stands for an NHS free at the point of use, vowing to take on so-called "health tourism" and fight to slash the foreign aid budget to fund the health service.
On a visit to Stoke, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: "People in Stoke won't be fooled by Merseyside MEP Paul Nuttall.
"He's an ex-Tory wannabe politician who wants to privatise the NHS.
"He even went on the TV and specifically talked of privatising health services in Stoke-On-Trent."
Mr Ashworth added: "The Labour Party founded the NHS and will defend it against those who want to break it up, sell it off and charge people for operations.
"You can't trust the Tories or Ukip to stand up for Stoke."
Losing the seat, which Labour has held since 1950 when it had a vote share of 66%, would be a bitter blow to Mr Corbyn.
The seat was one of Labour's safest in 1997 but its majority has since fallen to 17%, with Ukip surging by 18 points to take second place in 2015.
The by-election will be held on February 23 alongside a separate poll in the Cumbrian seat of Copeland, triggered by the resignation of another leading Labour moderate, Jamie Reed.
Mr Corbyn travelled to Cumbria on Saturday to visit a hospital and speak at a rally for the NHS amid conflicting reports about Labour's chances of holding Copeland.
Speaking in Copeland, Mr Corbyn praised Labour's candidate, former hospital doctor Gillian Troughton, as "an experienced health campaigner" who will "stand up for the workers at Sellafield".
He went on: "We are determined, absolutely determined as a party, to not just defend but also extend the National Health Service.
"We are determined to deliver a Labour government to deliver a fair decent, inclusive, respectful society, not a bargain basement tax haven on the shores of Europe, where the rich do well and the poor go to hell.
"That is what the Tories offer.
"We offer something different, something better and something inclusive."