THE prospect of a by-election in Hartlepool, probably to coincide with the mayoral election on May 6, is fascinating.

Hartlepool – which, with a 69.5 per cent vote to leave, was one of the most pro-Brexit places in the country – really should have been part of the collapsing red wall in 2019, when Bishop Auckland, Redcar, Durham North West, Sedgefield and Darlington were all lost by Labour.

Labour’s Mike Hill had his majority reduced to 3,500, and he only won because the anti-Labour vote was split between the Conservatives, who polled nearly 12,000, and Richard Tice, the deputy leader of the Brexit Party, who polled over 10,500. If either the Conservatives or the Brexit Party had not stood, it seems inevitable that Mr Hill would have lost.

Indications yesterday were that Mr Tice, now leader of the Reform Party with Nigel Farage in the background, might stand again. He appears to be urging the Conservatives to stand aside so he could give Keir Starmer a bloody nose.

The Tories, though, will want to win the seat, if only to prove Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” message is still working. With the vaccination roll-out going well, the Conservatives are not doing badly for a mid-term government in the national polls, and they were installed by the bookies as the 1-2 favourites to win the by-election.

But, with Ben Houchen standing again as Tees Valley mayor, they need a candidate. Indeed, the last time they won the seat was in 1959 when they had an extraordinary candidate: Lt-Cmdr John Kerans, who was a famous Royal Navy hero having masterminded the escape of HMS Amethyst which was stranded for 102 days on a mudbank in the River Yangtze in China under the noses of the Communists.

Labour, though, will also want to win the seat. Keir Starmer is 11 months in as the new leader who represents a completely different strand to Jeremy Corbyn who lost the red wall. In the first electoral test of Mr Starmer’s appeal, he cannot afford to lose a seat which has been Labour’s since 1964, a seat where Peter Mandelson in 1997 racked up a majority of more than 17,500.

But the party is in a mess locally. Less than two years ago, it had 18 seats and control of the borough council, but in May 2019, it lost 10 seats and control to the Brexit Party. Then its leader defected to the Socialist Labour Party.

It, too, has to hurriedly find a candidate. Left-wing firebrand Laura Pidcock, who surprisingly lost her Durham North West seat in 2019, was one name being talked about, as was that of Dr Paul Williams, the former Stockton South MP. Dr Williams, who is standing as Labour’s Police and Crime Commissioner candidate in Cleveland, has been working during the pandemic in Hartlepool, and yesterday Redcar’s Conservative MP Jacob Young mischievously suggested that he had been deleting his pro-second referendum tweets in order to ready himself for a tilt at the Brexity Pools.

Whether it is a two-way slugfest or a three-way tussle, it is going to be fascinating and, at this stage, impossible to call.