OPINION - Evening Standard Comment: North Shropshire by-election is a howl of anti-Johnson rage

·3-min read
 (Christian Adams)
(Christian Adams)

It was a by-election that did not need to happen. But the resignation of Owen Paterson, after a failed attempt by the Prime Minister to overturn the ruling of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, set off a remarkable chain of events that took in sleaze, second jobs, wallpaper and Christmas parties, and ended with the Tories losing a seat they had held for nearly two centuries.

The scale of the defeat is remarkable. A 23,000 majority washed away with a swing of 34 per cent, the seventh-largest since the Second World War. If replicated across the country, the Tories would be left with barely any representation in Parliament at all. This result represents the howl of rage emanating not only from North Shropshire but from across the country.

It is a direct blow to Boris Johnson’s authority. Tories forgave his chaotic approach to government (and his personal life) as they saw him as an electoral asset, able to win in parts of the country previous Tories leaders could not reach.

But now his party cannot even win a seat that voted 60 per cent Leave. The Conservatives’ 2019 coalition, composed of shire Tories and Red Wall converts, appears under threat.

Coming hot on the heels of the three-figure rebellion the Prime Minister suffered in the Commons over the introduction of Covid passports, many Conservative MPs are asking themselves a simple question is Boris Johnson, the Brexit referendum winner, the man who delivered the Tories their biggest majority in 22 years, still the right person for the job? Has he passed his sell-by-date?

Tory grandee Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the powerful 1922 Committee, has warned the Prime Minister that he has three months to sort things out or risk a leadership challenge. Yet it is not entirely clear how things will improve.

The economy is facing uncertain times, Omicron is leading to more people staying home, businesses are suffering and inflation continues on its seemingly unremitting rise. Johnson could refresh his top team, but every time he does that, and nothing changes, it makes it clearer than ever that the problem is with him, not his advisors.

He might even point to the absence of a credible alternative candidate — always the final vestige of a troubled leader – but Tory backbenchers may look to the Chancellor or Foreign Secretary and disagree.

The greatest threat to Johnson is that North Shropshire will make Conservative MPs fear that under his leadership, there is no longer such a thing as a safe seat. Panicked backbenchers, particularly of the Tory variety, tend to act. Just ask his predecessor.

If the Prime Minister was in perilous waters at the start of the week, by its end, he finds himself up a well-travelled creek looking for a paddle.

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