Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I suppose we should beware of polls in by-elections, but Conservatives in Hartlepool will have been buoyed by a Panelbase poll showing a seven-point Conservative lead.

Only three times in history has a governing party won a seat from an opposition party in a by-election. Trudi Harrison was the last to do it when she won Copeland from Labour a few years ago.

A Tory win here could have huge consequences for Keir Starmer. There’s always been a suspicion in Labour circles that he isn’t the man to breach the Red Wall and win seats back in the north and the midlands. If Labour was to lose Hartlepool, which in many senses is emblematic of Labour’s issues, his critics will feel vindicated.

Although he has a nominal majority on Labour’s National Executive Committee, his grip is loosening. Take what has happened in Liverpool. Starmer and his chief of staff Jenny Chapman wanted Jacqui Smith to chair the investigation into the Liverpool Labour Party. The NEC thought she was too factionally on the right (translation: Blairite) and vetoed it, giving the job instead to former MP David Hanson.

Strong Labour leaders get their own way. The fact that Starmer didn’t, shows a political weakness which hasn’t been evident up until recently. This really is a space to watch.

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On Wednesday I went into London by train for the first time since the middle of December. Over the last five weeks I’ve been driving in, but I was left with no choice but to go by train because of the closure of the M25.

It was interesting to note that in the immortal words of Theresa May, nothing has changed. There are if anything fewer cars parked in the car park at Tonbridge station, and I was more or less alone on the train. SouthEastern have also cut trains from the schedule, meaning that if I travel home by train after my LBC show, I don’t arrive home until 11.30pm.

If I drive, I get home by 11pm. So guess what, I’ll be continuing to drive in.

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I’m sure most of you have been reading the Daily Mail serialisation of Alan Duncan’s diaries. Many of you will have got the impression that the whole book is just one giant bitching session, with insults to his colleagues littering every page.

I am interviewing him tonight (or last night, if you’re reading this on Friday) for an hour, so I have been reading the whole manuscript over the last 24 hours. I’m 200 pages in and I can tell you that the serialisation is a grossly unfair representation of the book. It’s much more thoughtful and nuanced than the Daily Mail would have you believe.

I suspect the serial will have put many loyalist Conservatives off buying it at all. That would be wrong. It covers the four years from 2016-20 and is of course dominated by Brexit. However, it’s Alan’s insights into the role of a foreign office minister which I think provide many of the highlights of the book. I won’t give away the details here, but safe to say I am enjoying it immensely.

Of course, the first thing I did was look in the index to see if I got a mention. I did. Two. I rather gingerly turned to the pages in question and was relieved I had been spared a monstering. The second mention was a rather amusing text exchange we had after I had published a diary entry of mine from 2002 where I related something I observed during a lunch with Alan. Basically, he was eyeing up the waiters. But you’ll have to buy the book to find out more… 😊.

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I’ve written a full tribute to CheryI Gillan on my website, and Paul Goodman wrote a terrific tribute to her on ConHome too, but I wanted to just say a brief word in this column as well.

I first met Cheryl in the mid 1980s when she interviewed me to be a member of the Bow Group, back in the days when it was highly respected. They didn’t accept any old rif-raff! Then after she was elected we met occasionally, but it was in 2005 that our friendship blossomed.

Cheryl was on David Davis’s Shadow Home Affairs team and a key supporter of his in the leadership contest. She was what one call a real trooper. There were a few big egos in that team and she would delight in puncturing them. She was happy to accept any task for the team no matter how menial. I was David’s chief of staff and she would pop down to my office with increasing regularity to check how it was all going and ask what she could do to help.

As time went on, and I was enjoying the job less and less, she became my mother confessor. If it hadn’t been for her I might not have lasted the course.

She was born in Llandaff, Cardiff and remained intensely proud of her Welsh heritage. She may have had a quintessentially English voice, but how honoured she was when David Cameron asked her to be Secretary of State for Wales after the 2010 election. She rolled up her sleeves and was instrumental in backing Matt Lane, the then Director of the Conservative Party in Wales, in his plans to revive Tory fortunes there. And boy were they successful.

She didn’t have an easy time in the job at first, with the Welsh media and the Labour Party revelling in pointing out that she represented an English constituency. But she won people round with the warmth of her character and personality, and her intrinsic sense of duty and calm perseverance.

So it was with a great deal of upset that she learned in 2012 that she was being sacked, in favour of her junior minister, David Jones. She was devastated. It had been a job she had loved.

I last saw Cheryl over dinner in the Members’ Dining Room in the House of Commons in the autumn of 2019, six months or so after her husband Jack had died. During the meal various Conservative and Labour MPs came over to pay court to Cheryl. She was liked and respected across the House. We had a right old gossip, but in a nice way. She didn’t like the cruel side of political gossip, but loved to be in the know on who was on the way up or down and who was misbehaving.

Cheryl was a very important figure in encouraging more women to stand as MPs and I’ve lost count of the number of female MPs who I have seen on Twitter say how important she was in giving them advice and guidance when they were first elected.

She really is going to be missed by so many of us. A truly great lady, who deserves all the kind words that have been said about her this week.