The mother and daughter pair who run the sweet shop on the high street in Wem, a quiet market town in rural Shropshire, are baffled to have found themselves at the centre of a political and media storm. “It’s been unbelievable,” they say, shaking their heads as they put traditional boiled sweets in jars and greet the local school kids who traipse in. “The BBC came up two weeks ago. We’ve had the Times, the Mail… They’ve all been here. We’re not used to it.”
Boris Johnson is in crisis, having suffered months of scandal over sleaze and illicit Downing Street Christmas parties, as confidence collapses in his leadership both in the polls nationally and within his own party. But it is here in Wem, and in the surrounding hills and market towns of rural North Shropshire, where his political fate will be sealed. The people of North Shropshire have been tasked with casting their votes in a by-election today that is being seen as a referendum on Johnson himself, and on the sleaze scandal that has engulfed the Conservative Party, all triggered by the downfall of their own MP.
Owen Paterson, the former Conservative MP for the seat, stepped down last month amid an outcry over government efforts to protect him from punishment for breaking lobbying rules. It was the beginning of a downward spiral for Johnson and the Conservative Party, escalating a steady trickle of “sleaze” stories about coronavirus contracts given to party donors, improperly declared donations and rule-breaking by Tories at Christmas last year. In the by-election being held today (16 December), everyone wants to know whether this safe Conservative seat – Tory for over a century, with a current majority of 22,949 – could inflict a fatal defeat on the beleaguered Prime Minister. But “the ladies in the sweet shop”, as they ask to be referred to in print, have perfected their response. They chant in unison with big grins on their faces: “We don’t talk politics in the sweet shop!”
But they are happy to hint that they are Conservative voters, as the vast majority of people in this seat have been. And they are attuned to the difficult personal story underpinning this by-election: Paterson lost his wife, Rose, to suicide in June 2020. They know their former MP broke the rules, but they are all too aware of the tragedy of his wife’s passing. “He was a very pleasant gentleman,” they say with a sombre nod.
I did not meet anyone during my visit to North Shropshire who didn’t vote Conservative in 2019. This is testament to what an overwhelmingly safe Conservative seat it is, with 62.7 per cent of the electorate voting for Paterson in 2019. Voters tell me they aren’t used to being canvassed or meeting candidates, and figures from smaller parties confess they don’t have much data on the electorate here. But in the febrile political atmosphere with a government in crisis in midterm, plenty of lifelong Conservatives are thinking of making a protest vote.
Nancy, who runs a local bistro, is one of them. “I’ll be honest, hands up, I’m a farmer’s daughter,” she tells Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrat leader who is in Wem campaigning for Helen Morgan, the local candidate. “I’ve always voted Conservative. But-” she cuts off, throws her hands in the air in mock exasperation, rolls her eyes and laughs. “It’s a bit toe-curling at the moment.” Everyone she knows is talking about the political situation and Downing Street parties, she says. She has no particular affinity with the Liberal Democrats, but is happy to vote for their candidate Helen Morgan “because of it being a local person”.
Her neighbour, Mark, feels the same. “I’m on the fence at the moment. I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for, I’ve been put off the Conservatives, because the bloke lives in Birmingham and doesn’t live in Shropshire,” he says. A logistics driver by profession, Mark voted Conservative in 2019, “I wanted change, I wanted to see this Brexit get into gear, but Owen Paterson and the Conservatives are not as squeaky clean as they worked out to be. Like the other week they’re bringing up this party last year. Boris had a party and everybody else was stuck behind four walls, twiddling their thumbs, you know. That was wrong.”
“No disrespect to Boris, he’s a buffoon,” he adds. “He’s human, he’s going to make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. It’s Owen Paterson really” that is making Mark switch his vote. “What’s he done for us? I don’t follow politics that much because, no disrespect, they’re all for their own ends. It’d be nice to have somebody coming in here who will listen to our opinions.”
This is why, despite this being one of the safest Conservative seats, the Liberal Democrats believe they can pull off an astonishing victory here. But though the anti-Conservative vote organised itself efficiently behind a single challenger in other recent by-elections in Chesham and Amersham, Batley and Spen, and even in Hartlepool, there is bad blood here over whether the Liberal Democrats or Labour should be considered the challenger.
Ben Wood, the Labour candidate, insists his party can do the seemingly impossible. “I think that there’s this idea that North Shropshire is this entirely rural constituency where it’s, you know, dirt tracks and so on,” he tells me by the fire in the White Lion pub in Wem. “It’s not. It’s a constituency of five market towns, which voted heavily to leave. This is the kind of place which Labour can win.” He points to Labour’s consistent second place finishes, and insists that the Liberal Democrats “aren’t a progressive party”.
Farron insists, however, that it is the Liberal Democrats who have the best chance of winning the seat. While he praises the national Labour Party, which has downplayed its chances in the seat and made only token visits, he complains that there are a “few tribal people on the ground” who “won’t be told to step down – I mean not necessarily step down, but they’ll still say they’re the main challengers. Nobody thinks that. There’s a whole lot of people who will wish they hadn’t said it on Friday, because either we will have won despite them saying we couldn’t, or will have lost because Labour and Green voters didn’t tactically vote for us.”
But the two parties may be rowing over a non-existent prize. Robert, a 90-year-old pensioner, sounds, at first, like someone who ought to give the Conservatives’ opponents hope. He tells me that Johnson’s time will soon be up (“he looks to be getting old”), and predicts that the Prime Minister will retire at the end of the parliament. He mentions the Paterson scandal: “they’re all out for themselves, aren’t they?” Yet “I’ll vote Conservative,” he tells me. “They’ve done well under extreme pressure. And the other people, you know, I don’t think they’ve got a clue.”
And that, in many ways, is the story of this by-election at a time of scandals in Westminster. On this rainy, overcast day in December, the crisis of confidence has resonated with the voters of Wem. But for many voters, this will manifest as staying home on polling day, or switching off, or telling the steady stream of journalists turning up in their patch that they aren’t interested and that the candidates are all the same. In Wem, as perhaps in much of the country at present, these voters don’t expect much of politicians, and don’t expect much of politics.