Lib Dem candidate Helen Morgan won yesterday’s North Shropshire by-election, rounding off a damaging few weeks for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Morgan won 17,957 votes, ahead of the Conservatives’ Neil Shastri-Hurst, on 12,032 – an astonishing new majority of 5,925.
The by-election – sparked by the resignation of disgraced Tory MP Owen Paterson and botched attempts by Downing Street to stay his suspension for a breach of lobbying rules – delivered the Lib Dems’ second win of this year.
But it was an even more stunning result, with a swing greater than the 25% recorded in June when Sarah Green won Tory safe seat Chesham and Amersham. The only previous swing of this scale to the Lib Dems was Christchurch in 1993.
And it was an even more significant challenge. North Shropshire is a rural, “true blue” seat that had returned a Tory MP to Westminster for nearly 200 years. The constituency voted Leave overwhelmingly in the 2016 Brexit referendum (Chesham and Amersham had voted Remain) and yet Morgan – a staunch Remainer – was able to overturn a seemingly insurmountable 23,000 majority.
It’s true that mid-term byelections are vulnerable to protest votes, offering voters a free hit against the governing party. This is the line many Tory spinners are pushing today. And in many ways, this is true. But the impact of today’s result will be more revealing – both for the Lib Dems and for the Tories.
Firstly, it’s further confirmation that the Lib Dems are capable of winning victories in Boris Johnson’s “blue wall”. The party has made clear how it would act in the event of a hung Parliament, with leader Ed Davey already having committed his party to ousting Johnson from Downing Street back at conference in September.
For the Conservative Party, this vote was a referendum on Johnson’s leadership. The Paterson sleaze scandal kicked off a chain of events (not least scandal over illicit Christmas parties in Number 10 last year) that have led many to call into question the Prime Minister’s Downing Street operation – not just voters in North Shropshire, but Tory MPs in Westminster, too.
For many, today’s result crystallised the brand-changing impact this so-called “constant litany of stuff about politicians” has had on the Conservative Party. But it might also represent a change in mood that runs deeper.
With Brexit no longer the most defining issue, Johnson can no longer rely on it to unite his “true blue” and “recently red” voters. Nor can he rely on his MPs who previously backed him – not on ideological grounds, but because they saw him as an electoral winner and proven political asset.
Discontent amongst Tory MPs is now rife and Johnson’s broad political coalition of “true blue” and “recently red” seats suddenly looks stretched. As recently as the summer, Johnson was admired for successfully combining left-wing economics with right-wing social policy to occupy so much of the political ground. Now, he risks falling between two stools as both “red wall” MPs and traditional Tory shire MPs make their unhappiness clear.
Yes, the likelihood of an imminent leadership challenge looks small – but that doesn’t mean one isn’t brewing. Both the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary are current favourites to replace Johnson – and both are fond of a less-than-subtle photo-op/prime ministerial audition.
Of more immediate concern is Johnson’s political authority falling through the floor. There is absolutely no mood amongst Tory MPs for further Covid-19 restrictions, let alone another lockdown. Should the Omicron variant continue to put pressure on the NHS, then the Prime Minister may find himself caught between the need to protect public health and his inability to do so due to a lack of parliamentary support from his own benches.
And if he must once again rely on Labour votes, then he will have further elevated the Opposition as a government-in-waiting, further reduced his political authority, further taken the shine off his personal electoral potency, and further motivated those calling for a change in leader.
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