The Liberal Democrats are back as a by-election machine. It has taken them six years since the end of the coalition with the Conservatives, but now they have proved that they can win anywhere.
They won Richmond Park with a 16 per cent swing in 2016, and lost it in the general election the following year. They won Brecon and Radnorshire, a 12 per cent swing in 2019, and lost it four months later. Then they won Chesham and Amersham with a 25 per cent swing in June this year, and now North Shropshire with a 34 per cent swing, their best result since the Christchurch by-election in 1993 against John Major’s demoralised government.
Conservatives could dismiss the defeat in Chesham and Amersham, a Remain-voting constituency where the high-speed rail line provided an easy target for Lib Dem opportunism. But North Shropshire voted Leave by 60 per cent and has no comparable infrastructure-related grievances.
Here, the Tory defeat is mostly Boris Johnson’s fault. He ensured that the by-election was triggered in the worst circumstances, by trying to save Owen Paterson, the constituency’s MP, from his punishment for breaking the ban on paid lobbying. Of course, Paterson might well have been removed by a recall petition in any case, but Johnson’s intervention succeeded in ensuring that the by-election became a referendum on the prime minister’s own ethical standards.
This was compounded by the issue that hung over the entire by-election campaign, of parties in Downing Street during the partial lockdown last Christmas – an example of apparent double standards that all journalists and canvassers said came up again and again on the doorsteps.
The big question is how much this by-election defeat feeds the agitation by a small number of Tory MPs to launch a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership. Some MPs think North Shropshire proves that he has lost his election-winning ways, but most of them never had any time for him anyway.
Some of them are trying to encourage their colleagues to write to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, to ask for a confidence vote. Some of them are even copying Lib Dem by-election campaign tactics, trying to create an impression of unstoppable momentum by talking up the idea that Sir Graham will accept emailed letters over the Christmas recess. This may have always been the case, but it is a good way of keeping the story in the headlines.
Calmer heads with a longer perspective will say that this by-election is simply a return to politics as usual outside the coalition years, when the Lib Dems were capable of by-election spectaculars but often failed to hold the seats at the subsequent general elections. They know that by-elections are dangerous when Labour starts gaining seats from the government with big swings.
It was only in May this year that the Conservatives actually gained Hartlepool from Labour, and the swing to Labour in Old Bexley and Sidcup two weeks ago was a mere 10 per cent. Respectable, but not the kind of swings of over 20 per cent that Labour was winning before the 1997 general election.
Some Conservatives will realise that, bad as North Shropshire is for them, it is not good for Keir Starmer. He will come under new pressure from his members to support proportional representation as the first step to a deal, a “progressive alliance”, with the Lib Dems. Starmer had to use the might of the trade union block vote at his annual conference to crush the 80 per cent vote of the party members in favour of proportional representation.
His members will look at this month’s two by-elections and note that Labour couldn’t win in Old Bexley while the Lib Dems could in North Shropshire, and they will draw the wrong conclusion, which is that the Lib Dems must be part of a broad anti-Tory front.
I suspect that most Conservative MPs will reassure themselves that Lib Dem by-election wins are protest votes to be expected in the mid-term of a parliament, just as being behind in the opinion polls is situation normal.
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I don’t believe that there are as many as 55 Tory MPs – the number required to force a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership – who think that they would be better off with Rishi Sunak as leader and that now is the time to make the switch.
The effect of forcing a vote on Johnson’s leadership now would be to ensure that he won it, while advertising the Tory party’s uncertainty, unhappiness and division. So instead we will hear a lot of nonsense about how the prime minister needs to get a grip, sort out his operation, undergo a personality change and listen to different and better advisers.
Meanwhile, Helen Morgan, the new Lib Dem MP for North Shropshire, provided the best and most succinct analysis in her victory speech: “Boris Johnson: the party’s over.”