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17 December 2021

After North Shropshire, there’s little reason for Tory MPs to support the PM

Boris Johnson is too weak to implement measures to slow Omicron or to compensate businesses for loss of custom.

By Stephen Bush

In the past 24 hours, the Bank of England has raised interest rates for the first time in three years, the Welsh government will shuttered businesses to curb the spread of Covid-19, and the Liberal Democrats have won the North Shropshire by-election. 

Scores on the door:

Liberal Democrats: 47.2 per cent (up 37.2 per cent)
Conservatives: 31.6 per cent (down 31.1 per cent)
Labour: 9.7 per cent (down 12.4 per cent)
Green: 4.6 per cent (up 1.4 per cent)
Reform UK: 3.8 per cent (up 3.8 per cent)

It’s the second-largest Conservative-to-Liberal Democrat swing in a by-election and the seventh largest swing in any by-election in British political history. As I wrote yesterday, this is a constituency that even the Liberal Democrats – who have always tended to overperform in by-elections – should have had no business winning in. 

That they have not just won it but done so in emphatic fashion is a sign that discontent with the Conservative Party – or, at least, with Boris Johnson – is running high at the moment. It’s frequently said that Johnson’s relationship with the Tory party is transactional, and it’s true to say that outside of a core of long-time loyalists (Nadine Dorries, Kwasi Kwarteng, Conor Burns, Ben Wallace and so forth) most Conservative MPs don’t really have a developed theory of why Boris Johnson wins them elections: just that he does. 

As a result, I think he starts with more latitude to prove that his winning ways haven’t deserted him: but the local elections next year have now taken on an added significance. And the problem for both Johnson and the Conservative Party is that the road ahead looks treacherous. What unites the Conservative electoral coalition is that it has done well out of the era of ultra-low interest rates. The modest rise from 0.1 per cent to 0.25 per cent is not, in of itself, a major shift. But if inflationary pressures continue then the Tory coalition is going to come under some strain and the cost of living is going to keep rising. 

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And then there’s Covid-19. The most important short-term consequence of this by-election is that Boris Johnson’s already fragile political position is weaker still. And that fragility means that any major interventions to slow the spread of Omicron, or to compensate businesses for the loss of custom, may be simply too much of a risk for Boris Johnson to take. Difficult times lie ahead for the country, both economically and as a result of Covid-19. The Prime Minister’s problem is that he may now be too weak to take decisive action on either front, and too weak, therefore, to reverse the slump in his fortunes.

[See also: The Liberal Democrats had little to offer in North Shropshire. That is why their victory is so significant]

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