23 December 2022
A Brick Out Of the Blue Wall
By J.R. Thomas
North Shropshire is as beautiful a piece of rural England as you could hope to find. When foreigners think of rural England it must be here that they have in mind, even if they have never visited. Rolling hills, distant Welsh mountains, half timbered cottages, handsome squirearchical dwellings, big hedges and little market towns, ancient woods and winding lanes. Somewhere in these parts lived P.G. Wodehouse’s 9th Earl of Emsworth, with castle, sisters, and pig; here too was inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire with jolly country folk and distant threatening dark mountains; and of course from these deep valleys sprang A E Houseman’s bucolic if unsettling poetry. [Get on with it – Ed]
If anywhere would be the last redoubt of Toryism it should surely be North Shropshire; the worry for Tories now is that that is just what it may prove to be. Until last week North Shropshire had returned Conservative M.P.’s to Westminster for more that 200 years without a break (although it came very close to being won by Labour in the 1997 election, the electorate perhaps seduced by the Sauron-like charms of Tony Blair). But last Thursday the LibDems knocked a brick from Boris’s blue wall in dramatic fashion; dramatic, though hardly surprising. This was the seat of Owen Paterson, whose defenestration we have touched on before and will not rehearse again, other than to say that he was the new boy here in 1997 and had increased his majority at every election since (alright, apart from a tiny reverse in 2017). It met every definition of a safe seat, with the Conservatives almost always getting more than 50% of the votes cast.
Not this time though. Neil Shastri-Hurst, a medic from Birmingham, was reduced to 32% of the votes cast, about half the percentage gained by Mr Paterson in 2019. The LibDem Helen Morgan, who stood here in 2019 but then barely troubled the scorer, this time captured 48% of votes cast. Labour had 10% and the other ten or so deposit losers had 10% between them. The LibDems fought a stonking campaign as they so often do in by-elections, with blitz leafletting of the whole constituency several times over, billboards in every hedge, and an energetic if not terribly impressive candidate who took the trouble to meet and listen to as many voters as possible. The Tory was neither energetic nor impressive, seemed uncomfortably shy of voters, and, into the bargain, had been imposed on the constituency by Conservative Central Office. (Had anybody listened to the local Tory constituency association they would have learned that incomers from Birmingham have to work hard and long to become popular locally.) The Labour man, Ben Wood, an Ed Miliband lookalike, was local but was never going to get Tories voting for him once the LibDems made themselves the rallying point for anti-Tory, anti-Boris sentiment.
But this was not Old Bexley a couple of weeks ago, where a strong Tory candidate held on with a reduced majority (showing his mettle incidentally, in marching through the “No” lobby against the governments new anti-Covid restrictions shortly after his introduction in the House of Commons).
In Shropshire the popular and long serving Mr Paterson was felt to have been badly treated by his leaders; the candidate failed to impress; the government’s record on Covid is not selling well; there was much muttering about rising energy costs and impending increasing taxation; and perhaps most of all, electors did not like the party atmosphere in Downing Street. Christmas party, as well as Conservative party, we probably do not need to clarify. Mr Johnson only turned up once to support his candidate – though whether that made things worse or better we could not say. Sir Ed Davey, the LibDem leader did not turn up at all, being laid low with Covid; nor did Sir K Starmer trouble the electors, so perhaps big noises do not help anyway.
Last week in the Shaw Sheet my distinguished colleague Corbynista had the Tory down to win, but suggested Labour, LibDem, and Green should get together and allow the most likely winner a free run by the other two standing down. In business that would result in a Board of Trade enquiry into an illegal cartel, but it is allowed in politics, though very rare. What tends to happen is that the voters can work out for themselves how they might, in times such as these, give an unpopular party a black eye. That is what appears to have happened here. It seems unlikely that Ms Morgan will be the constituency representative for too long, unless she turns out to be an exceptional local member. Usually at the next election, the disgruntled voters having made their point, and hopefully having had notice taken and a more satisfactory candidate being found, return to their traditional alliance and history resumes its course.
But Corbynista’s underlying point was very well made. Electors often vote not for a candidate, but against one. They are motivated not by love, but by dislike. Keeping an unpopular candidate out rather than putting a good one in is so often what drives them. That, sorry Corbynista, is what seems to have happened at the 2017 election when Mrs May was much less popular in the country than she thought and the Leavers were becoming despairing about Mrs M ever getting it (or indeed, anything) done. A 2017 vote for Labour was a protest vote and its stance on Europe or the delights of proto-Marxism a complete irrelevance. It seemed clear that something similar happened in North Shropshire last Thursday. Unlike Bexley, where the turnout plummeted to around half that at the 2019 general election, here the turnout fell to 46% of those eligible to vote, from 68% in 2019. Given the Lib Dem majority, some voters have switched from Tory to LibDem and so have a number of Labour supporters; not in huge numbers – many Tories undoubtedly just stayed at home – but enough to demonstrate that the good people of Shropshire wanted to send a message to the Conservative Party in Westminster.
That message has been delivered; we must now wait and see if it has been heard. Given the ruthless nature of the Conservative Parliamentary party and the extraordinary noises issuing forth from the backbenches over this week, Mr Johnson should feel himself to be in extreme peril as leader. He may get a little more time, but that is likely to see an energetic winnowing of chaff and an emergence of possible alternative leaders. If Boris wants to be still PM by the spring a lot of things will have to change.
Tile photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash