Ministers are waking up this morning to a big Tory upset in North Shropshire. In the by-election sparked by the Owen Paterson sleaze row, the Liberal Democrats have won the seat from the Conservatives overturning a majority of 22,949. In what has long been regarded as a safe seat for the Tories (they have come out on top in the area for almost 200 years), the Liberal Democrats won 17,957 votes with the Conservatives managing just 12,032 votes. This gives the Lib Dems a majority of 5,925. Labour came third with 3,686 votes.
The result is striking for several reasons. As I first reported last month, there were Tory nerves over the vote ever since Paterson made the decision to quit the Commons following a botched attempt by Downing Street to stay his suspension for a breach of the lobbying rules. It wasn’t exactly the ideal backdrop for a mid term by-election but where senior Tories hoped they might catch a break is in the vote split. Labour came second in the vote in 2019 so the hope was the opposition would split between Keir Starmer’s party and the Liberal Democrats. Instead, Ed Davey's party managed to pitch themselves as the anti-Tory vote and consolidate. Notably, Lib Dem candidate Helen Morgan thanked Labour voters for lending her their vote in her victory speech.
So, why did the Tories fail here? There has been much expectation management in recent days from Tory sources – with some Johnson allies arguing that it is more unusual for the governing party to win a by-election than to lose one. There had also been problems on the ground, the Tory candidate Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst was criticised for not being a local given he was based in Birmingham, as well as anger over the ambulance services in the area.
Yet this result clearly will be tied to Boris Johnson's leadership and the difficult time the Prime Minister has had over the past month. While campaigners both for the Tories and the Lib Dems say sleaze only came up rarely on the doorstep, the Paterson row kicked off a chain of events that has seen Johnson's personal ratings fall. Since that initial row – and failed attempt by Johnson to change the rules on MPs’ standards – Johnson has faced increased scrutiny over his Downing Street operation. His rambling speech to business leaders at the CBI in which he spoke about Peppa Pig regularly came up on the doorstep. What's more, in the past week those canvassing say the ‘partygate’ row – over alleged Covid breaches last year in No. 10 – had become a potent issue.
Already a blame game is playing out publicly over the result. Polling expert John Curtice has described the result as '8.5 on the Richter scale' – a political earthquake. The only previous swing of this scale to the Lib Dems was Christchurch in 1993. Meanwhile, Conservative backbenchers are making their dismay known. John Redwood has urged the Prime Minister to take stock and start listening ‘to Conservatives’. Sir Roger Gale (a longstanding Johnson critic) popped up on Radio4 with this to say:
“‘This has to be seen as a referendum on the PM’s performance and the PM is now in last orders time. Two strikes already – one earlier this week in the vote in the Commons, now this. One more strike and he’s out. The Conservative party has a reputation for not taking prisoners.’
While a by-election is more open to becoming a protest vote than a general election, the result will give Tory MPs pause for thought – and time to consider the Prime Minister’s wider popularity ratings. North Shropshire is an area that voted heavily to leave and which ought to count as a Tory safe seat. What's more, the main reason MPs back Johnson is not ideology but the fact they see him as a winner. If a majority of over 20,000 can be overturned in a seat like this, MPs with smaller majorities (particularly Lib Dem/Tory marginals) are going to grow much more concerned about the current direction of travel.