Boris Johnson has insisted that voters in Batley and Spen are focused on “a positive change” in the area rather than the row surrounding former health secretary Matt Hancock.
The Prime Minister visited the West Yorkshire constituency on Monday ahead of Thursday’s by-election, with bookies backing the Conservatives to take the lead in the forthcoming poll.
Mr Johnson was asked if Mr Hancock had “derailed” the campaign, after the former health secretary was pictured breaking social distancing guidelines to combat coronavirus by intimately embracing aide Gina Coladangelo.
Tory MPs and ministers will have been eyeing the by-election amid the fallout surrounding Mr Hancock, who quit on Saturday and was replaced by Sajid Javid.
The Prime Minister told reporters during a visit to Johnstone’s Paints Limited in Batley: “I read about that story on the Friday, and we had a new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on Saturday.
“I think what people are focused on, I know what people on the doorsteps are saying, what Ryan (Stephenson, Tory candidate) is saying, is that we want to have a positive change in Batley and Spen.
“And we see the opportunity, now that we’re coming towards the end of the pandemic, as we get all the jabs in, we see an opportunity for a jobs-led recovery here in Batley and Spen and across the whole country.”
He said that the party’s contender, Leeds councillor Ryan Stephenson, was a “fantastic local candidate” who was “passionate” about the area he hopes will become his constituency.
Following the loss of the former stronghold seat of Hartlepool, concerns have grown over Labour’s prospects in the July 1 by-election in Batley and Spen, which was Jo Cox’s seat.
Polling suggests the murdered MP’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, could be lose the heartlands constituency in Yorkshire to the Conservatives.
Labour sources have been at pains to stress she is the only candidate to live within the constituency boundaries.
The by-election was triggered after Tracy Brabin, who won the seat for Labour in 2019 with a 3,525 majority over the Conservatives, was elected as the mayor of West Yorkshire in May.
A total of 16 candidates will contest the by-election on Thursday, although the poll is being seen as a straight two-way fight between Labour and the Conservatives.
Former MP and veteran campaigner George Galloway is running for his Workers Party and the Lib Dems have selected Tom Gordon.
The Yorkshire Party, which came third in the recent West Yorkshire mayoral election, will be represented by local engineer Corey Robinson.
The other candidates are: Paul Bickerdike (Christian Peoples Alliance); Mike Davies (Alliance For Green Socialism); Jayda Fransen (Independent); Therese Hirst (English Democrats); Howling Laud Hope (The Official Monster Raving Loony Party); Susan Laird (Heritage Party); Oliver Purser (Social Democratic Party); Andrew Smith (Rejoin EU); Jack Thomson (Ukip); Jonathan Tilt (Freedom Alliance); Anne Marie Waters (The For Britain Movement).