Christmas has come early for all those hoping to kick Boris Johnson out of Downing Street – or at least kick him when his poll ratings are down. The Liberal Democrats have pulled off a stunning victory in North Shropshire, which has switched from blue to yellow on a 34-point swing, the seventh largest in by-election history. A Tory majority of almost 23,000 has turned into a Lib Dem one of nearly 6,000. This was a safe Conservative seat that had never been held by any other party. The humiliating defeat is being brushed off as a symptom of classic midterm blues by some Tories, but the scale of it really is remarkable in an ageing constituency that voted 60% Leave.
Is this the beginning of the end for Boris Johnson? He was chosen as Conservative leader because it was thought his idiosyncratic ways could broaden the party’s appeal and produce a big win. He fulfilled that role in 2019. It is now a question of whether he has quickly become a burden. Clearly a single by-election defeat cannot change everything, but what matters is context – and that is unforced error after unforced error. Johnson’s defence of Owen Paterson, likely explained by the Prime Minister’s own record on sleaze, ensured this by-election took place at all; the Mirror stories about his flagrant disregard for the government’s own Covid restrictions ensured a Tory loss.
Labour did badly, placing third with a share of the vote down 12.4 points. During the campaign, there was a split in the party over how the by-election should be approached. Some argued against a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with the Lib Dems, pointing out that Labour had come second in the last three general elections. Others wrote off Labour’s chances and thought quietly giving up would offer the best chance of Tory defeat. The Labour leadership was accused of being in the latter camp: they denied this was the case, but notably Keir Starmer did not visit the seat.
While the local party and candidate did fight hard for votes, it is clear that tactical voting happened anyway. Winner Helen Morgan said “specifically to all those Labour supporters who lent me their votes today: thank you”. So was this a terrible result for Labour, as the numbers would indicate? No, in that Labour’s chances of winning a general election improve when the Lib Dems flip seats that Labour cannot quite reach. And it is quite possible that Labour support in this particular constituency was maxed out in 2017 at 31% of the vote, or in 1997 at 36%, which made the Lib Dems better-suited for the challenge here despite a worse record in recent elections. More concerning for Keir Starmer is that – while appreciating that the Lib Dems are simply good at by-elections – this kind of result shows people are angry, and in turn this suggests Labour’s poll leads should be bigger.
From £840-a-roll gold wallpaper to Peppa Pig, from the Paterson row to illegal Christmas parties, Johnson is truly in a mess of his own making. He could turn it around, but the drive to do so doesn’t seem to be there at the moment. Replacing him with a more traditional Tory less likely to repeat the feat of 2019, when Johnson pulled together an unusual coalition of voters, would be of great benefit to Labour. The pressure on Starmer to win future by-elections is now more intense, and this may be very tricky in Leicester East, where a contest could take place in the coming months. But North Shropshire is good news for his party. With the pandemic dividing Conservative MPs, cost of living pressures growing and No 10 dishonesty putting off voters, the Prime Minister is in serious trouble. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.