What the North Shropshire by-election means for the PM

Boris Johnson has had some difficult mornings in recent weeks. Whether it be waking up to a leaked video of the infamous Downing Street party or nursing the hangover caused by a mass Tory rebellion in the Commons over vaccine passports, the Prime Minister may well have wanted to hit snooze on a few occasions in December.

However, the news on Friday that the Conservative Party has suffered a dramatic and historic defeat in the North Shropshire by-election may be a cause for real concern when he considers his future in No.10. For context, and for those who are not keeping track of wintery by-elections In the Tory heartlands, yesterday voters went to the polls following the resignation of Conservative MP, Owen Patterson.

The challenger, local Liberal Democrat activist Helen Morgan, who ran a campaign focused on issues such as cuts to local ambulance services in the area stared down the barrel of a 23,000 Tory majority and a seat that had been blue since its creation 200 years ago. However, a swing of 34.2% saw Helen Morgan become Helen Morgan MP on Friday, as the voters of North Shropshire sent a message to the Conservative Party that their votes should not be taken for granted.

As the esteemed Professor John Curtice put it, the latest by election result is “not quite unprecedented, but the precedence is not very comfortable for the Conservatives.” Psephologists and the commentariat will normally tell you not to read too much into the results of by-elections, however, there is really no hiding from the fact that this is disastrous for Boris Johnson’s premiership.

A steady decline in the polls since ‘partygate’ now sees the Tories significantly behind Labour in the polls for the first time since Boris Johnson took over, despite three lockdowns and an unlawful proroguing of Parliament. And with Tory MPs claiming that letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister have already begun to be sent, could this be the final nail in the coffin for the Prime Minister?

Well, it really depends on who you ask.

Veteran Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale tweeted in the aftermath of the result that Boris Johnson has “one more strike” before he is removed by the Parliamentary Conservative Party, echoing real angst among his backbenchers. Whilst loyalist and Cabinet Minister, Oliver Dowden was sent out on the morning broadcast round to repeat the line that the result did not mark “some massive sea change” and the seat would return a Conservative MP at the next General Election.

And whilst it is clear that the challenges facing Johnson are structural in nature, it is incredibly important to consider the optics of this by-election defeat in the context of the electoral outlook of the UK, England in particular.

Boris Johnson’s vast majority is largely built on the 2019 intake of Tory MPs, commonly now referred to as “the blue wall.” An unprecedented number of voters took to the ballot box and voted for a Conservative MP for the first time, taking over a swathe of seats in the midlands and north, with fairly fragile majorities. This bloc of MPs will wake up following the result wondering if the result in North Shropshire might be emblematic of a Conservative decline, and that it is time for a leader who is not susceptible to a resurgence from opposition parties.

Another, potentially more important electoral coalition will come from Tory MPs in the South East shaking at the thought of the Liberal Democrats being a more coherent and attractive electoral force than in recent years. The likes of Deputy PM Dominic Raab, owner of a small majority in Esher and Walton in Buckinghamshire, must be wondering if it is time for a leadership challenge.

On balance, the by-election result probably won’t be the end of the Prime Minister, despite him being on the ropes. With the house in recess and SW1 retreating back home for Christmas, Johnson has escaped another heightened week of Parliamentary scrutiny. However, with the Omicrom variant ripping savagely through the country, further restrictions incoming and a by-election defeat in the once safe Tory seat of North Shropshire, the public, the opposition and his own party have put the Prime Minister on his final warning.

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