Image Credit: Peter Broster
Following the resignation of disgraced former Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, the Liberal Democrats won the North Shropshire by-election on 16 December. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Helen Morgan, received 17,957 votes, overturning a Conservative majority of about 23,000 in a seat that had remained blue for nearly 200 years.
Amongst the eleven candidates, Conservative Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst picked up 12,032 votes while Labour slumped to third place with only 3,686 votes. Many thought that Kirsty Walmsley, the Reform UK candidate, would split the Conservative vote but, having gained only 1,427 votes, she failed to have much impact. Even without the smaller right-wing parties taking a proportion of the vote, Shastri-Hurst would not have been elected.
Responding to her significant victory, Helen Morgan told Boris Johnson that “the party is over” - a reference to “Partygate” which has recently damaged Johnson’s reputation. Helen Morgan grew up in rural West Midlands so was seen as an individual who understands the problems facing her constituency. She has a background in finance, most notably working as head of margin forecasting for British Gas. In the past, she has faced criticism for comparing the government, on numerous occasions, to the Nazis.
Although by-elections are often dominated by local issues, it is clear that recent controversies and Westminster drama has had a considerable impact on the results. Allegations of “sleaze” and lockdown rule-breaking, such as Owen Paterson’s breach of the lobbying regulations, have dealt a blow to the government’s popularity. Over the last couple of weeks, footage and photographs have emerged suggesting that Downing Street staff, along with others close to the government, broke social distancing rules during various Christmas parties last December. There is a general feeling, both nationally and in North Shropshire, that Labour is right when it claims there is one rule for the government and another for everyone else.
In addition to national politics, local issues were not in the government’s favour either. Many in North Shropshire were concerned about the lack of sufficient accessibility to the NHS in their area. The county has had a long-running problem with ambulance shortages and access to the health service in rural areas. Frequent promises by the government to protect and improve the NHS have not cut through with rural people who have had to cope with the consequences of ten years of austerity. Helen Morgan’s campaign was centred around improving GP and ambulance services.
Other local concerns have included the fact that the government’s Levelling Up Fund will be mostly spent on northern ‘red wall’ seats. Whilst out campaigning, Conservative party volunteers have faced constituents frustrated that the government appears to be taking their votes for granted - a concern felt across other southern ‘Blue Wall’ seats. Others have expressed annoyance over the Conservative candidate’s lack of knowledge when it comes to local and rural issues.
During Friday morning, Johnson spoke publicly, recognising the disappointing defeat. He said, “I’m responsible for everything the government does, of course I take personal responsibility”. Other Conservative MPs have expressed their disappointment in the result but, by and large, do not believe that this defeat is damaging enough to warrant drastic action. That being said, the party will need to adopt a different electoral strategy if it wants to avoid significant losses in the local council elections next May.
Despite what is a damning recognition of Boris Johnson’s increasingly questioned authority and leadership, it is perfectly normal for governments to lose mid-term by-elections. In fact, many people see by-elections as an opportunity to voice their concerns with the current government. That being said, some would point to the fact that this is the second largest by-election swing since World War II and that a pro-Brexit constituency has just elected a pro-Europe party, this vote appears to be both exceptional and indicative of a national discontentment with the government.
The by-election followed Tuesday’s House of Commons vote on the latest round of Covid-19 restrictions, in response to the Omicron variant, in which Boris Johnson saw his largest rebellion to date. The 98 MPs who voted against vaccine passports, led by the Covid Recovery Group and other united factions within the party, represent an increasingly influential voice within the Conservative Party. It is not just the perception of “sleaze” that Johnson should worry about. Many traditional Conservative voters could see Lawrence Fox’s Reclaim Party or the Reform Party, led by Richard Tice, as more libertarian, anti-lockdown alternatives. Governments should be worried when they face potential opposition from both the left and the right.
Many typically Conservative voters and Conservative Party members are angry and frustrated at the government’s apparent lack of respect for the rules that they, themselves, imposed upon the British people. If Johnson does not act quickly to reinstate his electability and authority over backbench Conservative MPs, another blow may result in a leadership challenge. Already there have been rumours that certain cabinet ministers have been probing the mood of the parliamentary party in order to affirm support for a leadership bid. Historically, the Conservative Party has had a reputation of abandoning loyalty in the face of electoral defeat.