The Liberal Democrat victory in North Shropshire is a significant and damning result for the Tories, in one of its traditionally most safe seats which the party had held for the best part of 200 years. Most notable is the scale of the victory, with the Lib Dems overturning a previous Conservative majority of 22,949 to win by 5,925 votes in a swing of 34.1%, the seventh largest swing in by-election history.
The results show that over the course of the campaign a number of issues cut through. Talk of Tory sleaze amidst the Christmas parties row and fallout from the standards scandal has clearly cut through with the public. The campaign was dominated by criticism of the Prime Minister as opposition parties looked to capitalise on the loss of public trust due to these issues, and ultimately the result reflected the trend we have seen since November, with the PM suffering record-low approval ratings and his party falling behind in the polls for the first time in over a year. Local issues played their part too with the local NHS becoming a key pillar of the Lib Dem campaign and some voters frustrated with the Conservatives putting up an ‘outsider’ candidate based in Birmingham.
Coming also during a cost-of-living crisis where households across the UK have faced rocketing prices in bills and food, combined with the advent of new Covid-19 restrictions, the by-election could not have come at a worse time for the Tories given people feel more distanced and less supported by the Government than at any time during Boris Johnson’s spell as Prime Minister.
The result further increases questions of Boris Johnson’s leadership at a time when he already faces immense pressure in the wake of a large backbench rebellion over Plan B restrictions, as well as disapproval from many sides of his own party over the Christmas parties scandal and standards row, and the situation may only get worse for the PM as we await the imminent publication of Simon Case’s investigation into the Christmas parties.
Backbenchers critical of Johnson will only be more emboldened than before, and whilst a fully-fledged rebellion through the 1922 Committee may not yet be on the cards the PM will be expected to tow the line with his own party and consider serious changes to the way he leads, with talk of changes to his advisory team in Downing Street and the whip’s office being mooted. Should the PM have to introduce even more measures to combat the spread of the Omicron variant in the coming weeks, the situation for him in the party will only get worse.
Some may cite the by-election’s low turnout of 46.3%, a reduction of 21.6% on the last election, as a ‘mitigating factor’ in a crushing blow for the Conservatives, but if anything the party’s failure to mobilise people to vote in one of its traditionally safest seats is a sign in itself that it is losing sway with the public, and that the PM is losing his grip on one of the key assets that shored the support of a number of his own MPs – an unmatched appeal to specific sections of the electorate.
For the Lib Dems, this victory as well as the win back in June in the Chesham and Amersham by-election may embolden the party and set them out as a serious challenger to the Tories in the “blue wall” of Conservative safe seats. It is particularly interesting given that 59% of voters in North Shropshire voted to leave the EU in stark contrast to the Lib Dems’ Brexit position in the 2019 election.
The party has unequivocally set out that it is committed to ousting the PM, opening the possibility of campaigning pacts between them and Labour to tactically unseat Tory MPs – something that did not quite happen here, but Labour’s campaign was indeed reserved by its standards and allowed the Lib Dems to take the lead on making the case for anti-Tory protest votes. Labour’s low number of votes in a constituency where it had often come second, and the success of a swing towards Lib Dem support, perhaps shows that tactical arrangements may be the best way for opposition parties to have a hope of further eating into the Tories’ parliamentary majority.