Tom Roberts delves into the troubles facing the Conservative Party after their shock loss of former safe seat North Shropshire to the Liberal Democrats.
Thursday’s shock by-election result which saw the Liberal Democrats overturn a Tory majority of 22,949 has sent shockwaves through the Conservative Party and will seemingly hasten the demise of an already badly damaged Johnson premiership.
In the runup to the contest, it seemed as though the Tories would hold onto the seat, albeit with a much-reduced majority, partly down to the demography of North Shropshire and the fact that this seat has consistently returned a Conservative MP since its creation in 1832. With a substantial leave vote of 60%, very few graduates, and the constituency dominated by homeowners, it is an indictment of just how badly events (largely self-inflicted) have been for the government recently for the voters of North Shropshire to generate one of the largest protest votes in recent electoral history.
Conservative MPs in seats where the Lib Dems traditionally come second, such as Dominic Raab, will start to feel very nervous now that there is a pretty clear willingness for non-Tory voters to lend their votes to the party best placed to oust their Conservative MP and that large numbers of frustrated traditional Tory voters are willing to vote for other parties to send a message to the government.
The frustration with the government in long-standing Tory seats highlights a tension which has emerged within the party this past year that the government is too focused upon the electorate it has recently gained in the North of England and the Midlands at the expense of their Southern base and may play a part in this winning coalition of voters tearing itself apart.
These recent electoral struggles for the government spell danger for Boris Johnson, given his relationship with the party, is entirely transactional and wholly rooted in the idea that he is this great electoral asset who is capable of winning seats that previous leaders couldn’t have dreamt of. Whilst of course Tory MPs and members were rewarded for electing Johnson their leader with the 2019 election result, the fact that he doesn’t particularly represent an explicit wing of the party, with there being no such thing as a ‘Johnsonite’, leaves him with few foot soldiers outside of the cabinet willing to defend him after these awful past two months for both himself and the party that has seen Labour gain a polling lead of around 3 points on average.
His damaged standing has further compounded the issue of controlling his fractured party with regards to coronavirus legislation, in a week that saw 99 of his MPs rebel against the government with the vaccine certificates measure. As the Omicron variant surges over the Christmas period, with further government action now seeming an inevitability, the Prime Minister’s grave errors have tied his hands with what he can do, with a substantial block of Tory rebels determined to guide the government’s covid policies. Keir Starmer was perfectly correct to deem Boris Johnson ‘the worst possible Prime Minister at the worst possible time’ at PMQs this week, as he will now seemingly be reliant upon Labour votes to pass any further coronavirus related legislation, at a time when the country urgently needs a leader who can both control his party and be able to take the measures required to protect the NHS and the public.
What has seemingly been a constant stream of Tory sleaze scandals that played a significant part in the North Shropshire result may soon ebb and become less of an issue for the government, but a greater headache is looming for them regarding the economy. Perhaps the more important news than North Shropshire this week that will have a greater impact upon the next election is the rise of UK inflation rates to 5.1%, alongside the Bank of England’s decision to increase interest rates for the first time in three years. With inflation expected to rise further into 2022, and tax rises to come in April, the country faces its most stark cost of living crisis in years. With Labour, and in particular, the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, having done great work to slowly rebuild Labour’s economic credibility, Labour now has the greatest opportunity since it left government in 2010 to take the reins from the Tories and become the party best placed to look after the economy in the minds of voters.
Whilst it is important to remember that singular by-election results change nothing when the sitting government has a majority of this size, what instead does matter and can have a lasting impact upon Westminster politics is how they are interpreted by both the parties and the wider country, and so if Labour holds or even extends its polling lead over the coming months then it is fairly safe to say that the shift in public opinion was not a blip, but perhaps a sea change.
Tom Roberts is the Secretary of North West Young Fabians and an MA Politics student at the University of Birmingham. He tweets at @TomLRoberts00.