23 December, 2021

AUTHOR: James Dowen

JUST WILLIAM: North Shropshire

Hello to you all from Shrewsbury, where the political world is still digesting last night’s by-election win for the Liberal Democrats.

There’s so much to get into in this column, but some thanks are in order firstly. David Stewart and Joe Citrone keep this site running and have done so tirelessly in a year with more content than ever before, and their support over the past week has been essential – as always.

The result on its own terms, is not that surprising. The Lib Dems had been well backed in the seat and were 8/13 at the off with us, and despite some wild swings on Smarkets and Betfair, were favourites for most of the night until The Guardian’s Peter Walker came forward with the first declaration of confidence from Helen Morgan’s party:

That caused a market crash and then there were an avalanche of similarly confident predictions from other party insiders – presumably expectation management was now much less important – and the final result was beyond all expectations.

Lib Dems: 17,957 (47.2%, a rise of +37.2% since 2019 election)
Con: 12,032 (31.6%, a loss of -31.1% )
Labour: 3,686 (9.7%, a loss of -12.4%)
Green: 1,738 (4.6%, a rise of 1.4%)
Reform: 1,427 (3.8%)

Maj: 5,925

Those swings alone are extraordinary – indeed this was the 7th biggest by-election swing in history and the second biggest Tory to Lib Dem swing after Christchurch in 1993 – but the scale of the electoral mountain climbed by the winners needs to be fully acknowledged.

North Shropshire is not Lib Dem territory. The seat has had a Conservative MP for all but 2 of the last 189 years. It had a 60% leave vote. 30% of the population are aged 60% and over. There was a relatively low level of graduates. Infeed, if you put the 650 constituencies in a row, this would be 258th on the Lib Dem target list (well spotted Sam Freedman) – some way down for a party that has just 13 MP’s at the moment.

This was not Chesham and Amersham, where some of the underlying demographics gave the Lib Dems a potential advantage that their campaigners took full advantage of.

Without further ago, here are some takeaways from the result.

Boris Johnson’s magic touch could be gone

Love or loathe him (and we’ve seen plenty of loathing for him), we know that Boris Johnson has a long history of electoral success. And indeed, the Conservative Party owes him hugely for their current majority.

However, their attachments with Johnson have always been centred around that editorial success – many Tories don’t have a natural affinity for the Prime Minister – and his attitude, lack of detail, confrontational nature and polarisation have seriously affected the Conservative Party’s political fortunes in the short term (albeit that now covers at least a month).

A big worry for Tory party MP’s must be that more challenges are still to come. Johnson must deal with the Omicron variant and it’s effects, all whilst inflation and the cost of living head up, with local elections next may sure to be a major test. If Johnson – who was a liability rather than an asset in this month’s two by-elections that took place in Tory heartlands – makes it to the next election, he’ll also probably be facing a Labour leader in Keir Starmer who isn’t as easily attackable as Jeremy Corbyn was in 2019; something which will give plenty of sleepless nights to the 2019 intake – and those in seats vulnerable to the Lib Dems.

The Tories need a big offer for the next election

It’s just two years since the Tories won an 80-seat majority at the last general election – how different things are now – but the next one might feel uncomfortably close for many Tory MP’s.

Now things could and probably will change ahead of the next general election (I for one, would not mind reliving much of 2019 again bar a few days in December) but the messaging of Boris Johnson and the promise of a completed Brexit played a central part in the Conservative victory.

Will the party have such a compelling message in 2024? Levelling up has been at the centre of their plans so far, but providing signs of tangible progress with complex infrastructure projects is hard, especially when the benefits can take years to be seen and spending in many cases could end up only restoring certain services to pre-austerity levels.

With the cost of living and inflation set to be two major challenges in addition to Omicron next year, going on the economy long term could also be a very tough challenge.

And so do Labour….

I don’t subscribe to the view that this result is a disaster for Labour and Keir Starmer; Their performance was below par to my mind, but in the end the circumstances suited the Lib Dems far more, and in a seat like this it shouldn’t be a surprise that more Tory voters ended up switching to the Lib Dems or not voting than going for Labour, who ended up putting less into the seat.

However, the recent polling advantages he’s enjoyed are very much a product of current events and if Labour is to put itself in a position to take the next election (where success would surely be removing the Government buy any means) simply moving on Tory failures will not be enough. Boris Johnson – now an odds on shot not to lead the Tory Party into the next election – is also the source of a great deal of Tory apathy and anger at the moment, and facing Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss is a much harder task for Keir Starmer, and especially his strategy.

For all that many credit the ‘threat’ (in Tory voters’ minds) of Jeremy Corbyn’s as a big part of Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019, the Tories also had a clear offer to voters and Labour will need the same.

Downing Street, Take Your L’s

Amongst the many things that will stick in the craw for the Conservatives after this defeat is this; That it simply didn’t need to happen. Had MP’s approved the report into parliamentary standards in light of Owen Paterson’s Randox Scandal, then he would have completed his 30-day suspension and spent the past week back in Parliament.

And if Downing Street had admitted that several parties took place during the first lockdown when the story was initially broken, then it could be said that the many subsequent stories might have felt a little less insulting to voters – for all the story would still be a hammer blow.

Since the beginning of their time in office, this Government has consistently refused to back down on any amount of positions, whether they be negative stories, series policies, or indeed disputes which are domestic or international. It’s difficult to imagine another current administration in Europe getting into a fight with Marcus Rashford, the EU, and the truth as a concept, but in just 2 years the Tories have managed all three and come off worse.

Things can change very rapidly, but it appears that backing down in the future could be a prudent strategy.

The Lib Dems could have a major part to play in the next election

Whilst we’re not in bar-chart territory just yet, the Lib Dems will go into 2022 on a high after two massive by-election scalps from the Tories. A general election is a different challenge, especially against a leader that isn’t Boris Johnson, but there are other reasons for Tory voters to switch across and the South East could be up for grabs – there are 15 seats alone where the Lib Dems came second with majorities of less than 5,000, and if voters are inclined to play the tactical game, then those results could be crucial in a couple of years time.

Timing Is Everything

Boris Johnson has arguably never been under as much pressure as he is now. However, it’s only a few months ago that he was flying high after seeing the Tories romp to by-election victory in Hartlepool (remember that was this year!?!?!) and now he’s considered odds on not to make it to the next general election as Tory leader.

Those with ante post positions on either side would be wise to now look ahead the next electoral test could be as far away as May, when things could be all change by then – including the leader of the Tory party itself – and that could present potential value.

Horses For Courses

Whilst it’s always a bit of fun to replicate huge swings on virtual election maps – Yes, I have had fever dreams about Emperor Ed Davey – it’s important to give this result it’s proper context. There are hints at what could happen in a general election down the road, but the situation by then will be very different and the issues are an odds on shot to have changed totally.

There are many important trends to note here but campaigning across the country couldn’t be more different than focusing on one area and it’s important not to get too carried away.

The Reclaim Flop

The Tory party will be pretty gloomy today, but if they’re still drowning their sorrows, imagine the mood amongst Laurence Fox and friends this morning. Fox’s Reclaim Party won just 375 votes (0.98% of the vote), despite their deputy leader Martin Daubney being chosen to run in the seat.

The £10 million in funding for the Reclaim party that Fox claimed would be used “to trigger by-elections across the UK so people can vote for something more commonsensical and reasonable” doesn’t look well spent so far…


Views of authors do not necessarily represent views of Star Sports Bookmakers.