Friday 24 February 2017 7:49 am

Theresa May's Conservatives have secured an historic victory in the Copeland by-election

Theresa May’s Conservatives have become the first governing party to gain a seat at a by-election for 35 years, snatching the constituency of Copeland in an embarrassing defeat for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

Conservative candidate Trudy Harrison won the race to replace Labour MP Jamie Reed, who stepped down late last year to work at the Sellafield nuclear plant in the constituency.

It is extremely unusual for a governing party to gain a seat in a by-election, with the last such victory coming in 1982.

And what's more, Labour had held the seat of Copeland, and its predecessor constituency Whitehaven, since the 1930s, although its majority had narrowed recently, shrinking to just 2,564 at the 2015 General Election.

It comes after a campaign that saw the Conservatives put Corbyn’s antipathy towards nuclear power at the heart of their efforts – Copeland is home not only to Sellafield, but also to the potential Moorside plant, with the sector the dominant employer in the constituency.

Labour, by contrast, sought to play to its traditional strengths in the NHS, choosing a former ambulance driver and doctor as its candidate, and warning of the potential closure of maternity services at the West Cumberland hospital.

Read More: Nigel Farage is staying away from the by-election featuring his successor

However, there was better news for Labour in Stoke-on-Trent Central, where it managed to retain its seat following the resignation of Tristram Hunt.

Hunt quit politics to go and work for the V&A in London, but Labour fought off a challenge from Ukip leader Paul Nuttall to hold on to the constituency.

In doing so, Jeremy Corbyn's party was boosted by a disastrous campaign for Nuttall, which saw the Ukip leader forced to correct claims on his own website that “close friends” had died in the Hillsborough disaster.

The Stoke constituency has been held by Labour since 1950, and had been a strong seat for Labour, but a strong Brexit vote during last year’s referendum had led to concerns that Labour could be usurped by Ukip, and last night's results showed Labour's majority halving from its result in the last election. 

Nonetheless, it will likely be Nuttall who faces questions over the Stoke result, after his party only inched out the Conservatives for second place, with a difference of just 79 votes. Last week, former Ukip leader Nigel Farage said the Stoke by-election was "absolutely fundamental" to the future of the eurosceptic party.

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