Another Blow for Boris: Conservatives Lose Ultra-Safe North Shropshire Seat in Special Election

SHREWSBURY, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 17: Alan 'Howling Laud' Hope, Official Mon
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Boris Johnson’s Conservatives lost a Parliamentary seat that had been true-blue for the whole of modern British political history in the early hours of Friday morning, with pundits blaming a succession of coronavirus scandals and tax rises for turning the public mood against the Tory juggernaut.

The Shropshire North by-election (special election) saw an enormous — one of the largest since the Second World War — 37.2 per cent swing away from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats when the results were called in the early hours of Friday morning, following Thursday’s poll. In the count, the Liberals took 47 per cent and the Conservatives 31 per cent, with all other parties including the official opposition Labour and Brexit-Party successor Reform trailing in single figures.

Proportionally, the Conservative vote in this historically extremely strongly Tory seat fell half from 62 per cent of votes in the last election to 31 per cent now. North Shropshire, through the various incarnations of the seat through boundary changes and reforms, has been represented by a Conservative MP non-stop for nearly 200 years.

The result has been called a shock win for the Liberal Democrats by the establishment media, although it isn’t, with polling running up to the vote showing the commanding Conservative lead eroded as the governing party taking a beating over a cascade of scandals over failures by government figures to obey the lockdown rules they enforce. Nevertheless, the change has come quickly — top poll analyst Sir John Curtice said the result was unforeseen as recently as two weeks ago.

The Conservatives’ leader in London stood down this week over a picture emerging of him attending a lockd0wn-busting Christmas party last year, and the prime minister himself has struggled to shake off public perception that he may have been less than honest about claims that Christmas parties took place at his official residence last Christmas, too.

Critics of the prime minister within the Conservative Party and without have leapt on the historic result to assert the vote proves it is time for Boris, who was selected as leader to deal with Brexit but has often seen ill-at-ease leading through the Chinese coronavirus, to step down. Supporters of the prime minister, on the other hand, point out that it is the norm, not the exception, for a sitting government to lose by-elections mid-term and that now is not the time for change at the top.

Conservative Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden was on state broadcaster the BBC on Friday morning providing covering fire for the prime minister, when he said that he while he recognised the voters wanted to give Mr Johnson a “kicking” and had done so, nevertheless the government was doing a good job, was listening, and would get better. Dowden also emphasised the fact that the Labour Party had lost votes, too.

Senior Tory Sir Charles Walker also spoke out in favour of the prime minister, saying to have a leadership election while coronavirus continued would be “completely self-indulgent”. He told the broadcaster: “By-elections throw up these results… I don’t think we can read too much into this. Of course it is disappointing for the Conservative Party, of course it is a really bad morning… But it doesn’t mean the end, and it certainly doesn’t mean leadership challenges.”

Others were less supportive. Senior Tory Brexiteer John Redwood was critical of the government for having let the public down and urged the prime minister to listen to Conservative voters on whom, ultimately, Boris Johnson relies. He wrote: “Will the Chancellor now admit his high tax economic slowdown is wrong? Will the Environment Secretary back British farming instead of trying to stop us growing our own food? Time to listen to Conservatives.

“…The way to cut the inflation is to produce more of our own energy, not to put mortgage rates up. If the Chancellor wants to help the country he should cancel his increases in National Insurance. Take VAT off domestic heating fuel.”

Tory MP  Sir Roger Gale, meanwhile, made clear his opinion that Johnson was under severe pressure to improve. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The electorate wanted to send a very clear message to Downing Street that they were dissatisfied with the management of this Government.

“I think this has to be seen as a referendum on the Prime Minister’s performance and I think that the Prime Minister is now in ‘last orders’ time. Two strikes already, one earlier this week in the vote in the Commons and now this. One more strike and he’s out.”

The Shropshire North election was called after incumbent Owen Paterson — a senior Brexiteer and former government minister — was accused in a lobbying scandal which the watchdog said was “an egregious case of paid advocacy”. Paterson rejected the findings, blamed the witch-hunt for the suicide of his wife, and claimed the investigation had been undertaken improperly, with key witnesses not invited to speak.

He said at the time of his standing down: “The last two years have been an indescribable nightmare for my family and me. My integrity, which I hold very dear, has been repeatedly and publicly questioned. I maintain that I am totally innocent of what I have been accused of and I acted at all times in the interests of public health and safety. I, my family and those closest to me know the same. I am unable to clear my name under the current system.”

The Liberal Democrats which won North Shropshire today were once a major force in British politics, but have struggled for relevancy in the post-Brexit world where their political offering seems out of step with the British public. Nevertheless, they enjoy occasional and spectacular successes in by-elections, a kind of politics their party is well-positioned to benefit from.

Party leader Ed Davey, who is presently in isolation after testing positive for coronavirus, called the result — optimistically, perhaps, given the party’s track record of winning by-elections but achieving little else — a “watershed moment”. Barely able to contain his excitement, he said: “ft was a spectacular result… I think we brought new hope to the whole nation who have been so worried and fed up with Boris Johnson.”


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