The voters of the safe Conservative seat of North Shropshire have inflicted an extraordinary defeat on Boris Johnson and his party overnight, in a by-election that didn’t need to happen. The Liberal Democrats overturned a 23,000-vote majority to win the seat by 6,000 votes, a 37.2 per cent swing: the seventh largest since the Second World War.
North Shropshire is not Chesham and Amersham, the leafy London commuter belt constituency where the Liberal Democrats snatched another by-election victory from the Conservatives in June. That win in the summer saw the coinage of the “Blue Wall” to describe typically safe Conservative constituencies – mostly Remain-voting and in the south of England – where the Liberal Democrats are in second place, and where they believe they are in contention at the next election.
The victory in Chesham and Amersham made sense. It is quite normal for governments to lose midterm by-elections, and a simmering discontent with Boris Johnson and his government was clearly present. That was compounded by local issues such as High Speed 2, which runs through the constituency, and by a sense that voters were realigning post-Brexit. These mostly affluent, metropolitan, Remain-voting residents were a more natural fit for the Liberal Democrats than for Boris Johnson’s cavalier, law-breaking, pro-Brexit Tories, and they said as much on the doorstep. Chesham and Amersham is a seat that was moving towards typical Liberal Democrat demographics anyway. The by-election simply sped up that process (and that remains true even if it flips back temporarily to the Conservatives at the next election).
But North Shropshire is not a Blue Wall seat. It is a constituency made up of five market towns that voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU. What was striking when I reported from the constituency this week was how naturally Conservative every single voter I spoke to was: people from farming families, service families, business owners who don’t want taxes to be too high, and drivers for local factories expressing concerns about immigration.
The Liberal Democrats didn’t have much to offer the electorate in this seat. They had the stock by-election pitch that I heard their former leader, Tim Farron, deliver again and again on the doorstep: that it would be very close between them and the Conservatives, and electing a Liberal Democrat would “send a message” that they don’t want to be taken for granted. There was also the promise that Helen Morgan would be a hard-working and, crucially, local MP, unlike the Conservative candidate from Birmingham. If time allowed, the Liberal Democrats would mention that farm payment cuts are coming in at the end of the month, and a Liberal Democrat vote would express opposition to that move.
But the foremost issue on the doorstep was the Downing Street Christmas party. The second biggest issue was Owen Paterson, the local MP who broke lobbying rules and triggered the crisis in Westminster over “sleaze”. The Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates I joined never brought these issues up themselves – it was voters who did.
Mark, a driver for a logistics firm, told Farron that he “did vote for Boris to be here because I wanted change. I want to see this Brexit get into gear. You’ve got all these illegal immigrants coming in.” The former Liberal Democrat leader made a tacit nod to the vast political differences on display between Mark and the Liberal Democrats, observing at one point in their conversation that “you’re never gonna have an MP who you agree with 100 per cent”. But those differences were not on obvious display to Mark, nor were they his priority. He was backing the Liberal Democrats because the Conservatives “aren’t squeaky clean” in the way he thought.
This dynamic was a source of immense frustration for the Labour candidate, Ben Wood, as he told me earlier in the week. “The Lib Dems are running a campaign where every leaflet is saying how they’re the only opposition to the Tories,” he said. “They don’t have any policies on there.” This was a by-election about the Conservatives and what their voters think of them midterm, rather than about anything any other party was offering.
North Shropshire is not Chesham and Amersham, which is what makes it so interesting. This wasn’t a by-election about local issues or about the realignment of the constituency’s voters with the Liberal Democrats. This was a purely distilled protest vote. It was a referendum on Boris Johnson, and he lost.