It’s the morning after the U-turn before: Owen Paterson has resigned as an MP and the reverberations of that 24-hour long saga are still being felt in Westminster. Conservative MPs are furious with Boris Johnson, chief whip Mark Spencer, friends of Owen Paterson and Paterson himself, after they were marched up a hill to vote to let him off the hook for breaking lobbying rules, only to be marched back down again – with a huge amount of political pain and no political gain.
But attention is already turning to the North Shropshire by-election that lies around the corner. The question in Westminster is whether the opposition parties might stand aside to back an independent “anti-sleaze” candidate to stand against the Conservative candidate who hopes to replace Paterson in this safe Tory seat. It would emulate the successful stand of Martin Bell, a former BBC journalist, as an independent candidate against Neil Hamilton, the Conservative MP at the centre of the so-called cash-for-questions affair, in Tatton in the 1997 general election. Labour and the Liberal Democrats stood aside for Bell in that seat, allowing him to overturn one of the safest Conservative majorities in the country.
Discussions were indeed held yesterday between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens about the possibility of arranging the same approach in North Shropshire, but the idea is dead on arrival. The parties told the New Statesman they understand the desire of many voters for such a candidate, but they ran up against practicalities yesterday that make it “very complicated”.
The rules have changed since Bell’s campaign in 1997. Legislation was introduced in 2000 that would prevent the parties from pooling resources to support the one candidate: they wouldn’t be able to share data, or put their own staff on the campaign. It is also worth pointing out that Bell stood against the “sleazy guy” in 1997, as one Liberal Democrat puts it, whereas North Shropshire will see a new Conservative candidate seek election. That’s before you even get into the complexities of choosing a candidate that the opposition parties could agree on.
The Liberal Democrats and Labour have confirmed to the New Statesman that they will be standing their own candidates. An independent anti-sleaze candidate could still stand in the constituency, but without the opposition parties withdrawing the idea looks unlikely to have much success. “It was a nice idea,” said one person involved in the discussions. “But not workable in practice.” It was fun while it lasted.
[See also: We cannot rely on shame to hold politicians like Owen Paterson and Rob Roberts to account]