As the government turns its attention to the new Covid variant, the ramifications of the Owen Paterson sleaze row are not quite done yet. After a difficult few weeks for the Prime Minister and his team in 10 Downing Street, Boris Johnson's approval ratings have fallen both with the general public and Tory members. The latest ConservativeHome poll puts Johnson in negative ratings for the second time since the last election among the Tory grassroots — on -17.2.
In a way, it's hardly surprising Johnson's standing has fallen given the combination of problems facing the government — from tax rises to small boats and the Paterson row. The question is, will it hurt the Tories at the ballot box? There are two by-elections on the horizon that the Tories are on paper predicted to hold. The first is Old Bexley and Sidcup on 2 December — after James Brokenshire passed away — and the second is North Shropshire on 16 December in the wake of Owen Paterson's decision to quit the Commons over a report finding him in breach of lobbying rules.
When it comes to the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election, Tories on the ground are cautiously optimistic about their prospects (it had a Tory majority of 18,952 in the 2019 election) even if there is some grumbling on the doorstep. Where there is a sense of unease is North Shropshire. Despite Paterson holding the seat in 2019 with a majority of 22,949, senior Tories have expressed concern over the vote while the Liberal Democrats are talking up their prospects. One senior Lib Dem source has told the Times that they have put money on a victory for their party.
So, what's going on? Is this expectation management from the Tories in a bid to get the vote out? And an effort from the Liberal Democrats to pitch their party as the anti-Tory vote over Labour and the Greens? There had been talk of a cross-party anti-sleaze candidate when the by-election was first called. That didn't work out — but the general sense in the seat is that the Lib Dems have successfully squeezed down the Labour vote. What's complicating matters is how rural the seat is – making canvassing and trips from ministers harder – and how little up to date data there is.
Still, a win would be a shock result in a seat that has been Conservative for more than 100 years. While it's fairly typical behaviour for an opposition party to talk up their prospects, it is worth noting that such claims were generally dismissed ahead of the Chesham and Amersham by-election which the Lib Dems then won — overturning a majority of 16,223. This time around there are a few factors to consider. Both sides say the vote is tighter than you would expect — even if the Tories are still ahead in the polling. Lib Dem campaigners on the ground say that on the doorstep Johnson is as unpopular as he was in Chesham and Amersham.
As for Tory sleaze, despite it being Paterson's seat, it rarely comes up. 'Peppa Pig has come up more than sleaze,' says a Lib Dem source, in reference to Boris Johnson's rambling speech to the CBI earlier this month. There are also local issues at play — with anger over the ambulance services — and questions over the Tory candidate who is based in Birmingham.
It's worth noting that even the Liberal Democrats admit that success here would amount to 'the biggest by-election win ever' and see a close race in which the Tory majority is slashed as the more likely outcome. Either way, the Conservatives could have a real fight on their hands at the next election.