You could say the Tories lost a seat they owned for nearly two centuries because of a Christmas Party scandal. Or you could say they lost the seat because Boris Johnson handled/is handling the COVID pandemic almost as badly as Trump did. Or maybe it was just that the voters finally understood that conservatism and corruption go hand-in-hand. Whatever caused the Liberal Dems to win one of the safest Conservative seats in England, is very bad news for Johnson. We'll come back to that in a moment. First a little geography and history.
Shropshire is in the West Midlands-- east of Wales and northwest of Birmingham. The best known towns in the area are Shrewsbury and Coventry. The North Shropshire constituency is entirely rural with 5 villages-- Oswenstry, the biggest of the 5 (pop- around 16,000), Market Drayton, Whitchurch, Wem and Ellesmere. Notorious British Nazi-- and leader of the British Union of Fascists-- Oswald Mosley was born there. He was, more or less, the Madison Cawthorn of his day, although Mosley did go to college. I got a little off-track there but... that's the area we're talking about. It has been in Tory hands ever since it was made a constituency in 1832-- until yesterday. Owen Paterson, a loud, right-wing Brexiteer, has been the MP since 1997, until he resigned on November 5th, triggering yesterday's by-election.
Paterson was a typically corrupt conservative, using his position in Parliament to profit personally. A Northern Ireland healthcare company, Randox, was bribing Paterson while he was Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary and then Minister-- with a bogus "consultant" job-- to represent their interests and send contracts their way. He had a similar situation with another Northern Ireland company, Lynn's Country Foods, a sausage maker. Parliament's ethics apparatus ruled that he breached the paid advocacy rules-- was delivering on bribes-- for both companies. The Commissioner ruled that Paterson has "repeatedly used his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant, and that this has brought the house into disrepute [and that] no previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests." Paterson, of course, claimed he was innocent. Johnson tried saving his career with an utterly clownish attempted whitewash which only embarrassed the Conservative Party even more and forcing Paterson to resign, although he doesn't have to give up his title, "The Right Honorable."
Paterson had been reelected in 2019 in a landslide-- 35,444 (62.7%) to 12,495 (22.1%) for Labor and 5,643 (10.0%) for Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan. Yesterday, Morgan won:
Helen Morgan (Lib-Dem)- 17,957 (47.2%)
Neil Shastri-Hurst (Conservative)- 12,032 (31.6%)
Ben Wood (Labour)- 3,686 (9.7%)
Duncan Kerr (Green)- 1,738 (4.6%)
Kirsty Walmsley (Reform UK)- 1,427 (3.8%)
Andrea Allen (UKIP)- 378 (1.0%)
Martin Daubney (Reclaim Party)- 375 (1.0%)
Alan "Howling Laud" Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party)- 118 (0.3%)
During the campaign, Conservatives had several parties-- that disregarded pandemic rules-- for Conservative MPs and staffers and in Westminster. And that led to an exposure of a series of rule-breaking parties Johnson had at 10 Downing Street. After Johnson denied that there had been any parties, a video of a practice press conference where there was an admission of a party was leaked to the media. Johnson managed to put the blame on his subordinates but the media has stirred the public in a big way.
The rout in North Shropshire has conservatives freaking out. This would be like the Republicans here losing one of the West Virginia seats or the Wyoming at-large seat. If it could happen in North Shropshire, it could happen anywhere. According to the BBC today, "Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said the prime minister was on 'last orders. One more strike and he's out,' he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, adding that the by-election 'has to be seen as a referendum on the prime minister's performance.' Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said: 'I know that the voters of North Shropshire are fed up and they wanted to give us a kicking... We've heard that message loud and clear.'"
[T]his is an appalling result for the Conservatives, in a part of the country where the tradition of voting Tory is baked into the earth. This isn't a little slip up; it's a disaster.
People on the ground say the Tory campaign was going OK, until all of the recent shenanigans in Downing Street emerged, and that that is when support fell off a cliff.
Boris Johnson does have an extraordinary ability to bounce back. But there are people in the Conservative Party who are pencilling in the possibility of a summer leadership election.
Things are febrile, and we shouldn't predict things with any certainty-- but there's no doubt this is a really dangerous moment for the prime minister.
...Earlier this month, the Tories held Old Bexley and Sidcup in a by-election following the death of MP James Brokenshire, but the majority was cut from nearly 19,000 to 4,478, with a 10% swing to Labour.
...The by-election came just two days after Boris Johnson experienced his biggest rebellion in office, when 100 Conservative MPs voted against the government's proposals to introduce Covid passes in England.
It also followed rows about a Number 10 Christmas party during lockdown restrictions last December and the prime minister's appearance at a virtual quiz alongside two colleagues at about the same time.