Owen Paterson’s resignation as the MP for North Shropshire has opened up a by-election in his seat. The by-election is in many ways wholly uninteresting. If you wanted to design an ultra-safe Conservative seat in a laboratory, you’d end up with something a lot like North Shropshire: older than the United Kingdom average by about a decade, relatively few graduates, a large Leave vote, and equally importantly, none of the opposition parties can point even to consistent success in achieving regular second-placed finishes. This is both inhospitable territory for the anti-Tory parties demographically and organisationally. In that respect it is wholly unlike Old Bexley and Sidcup, where the Tories are also preparing for a by-election following the death of James Brokenshire, which is similarly bad terrain for the opposition parties demographically, but where they are better organised.
Paterson’s exit means that any prospect of the by-election becoming a referendum on his conduct is pretty low. The useful comparison point is probably the general election in Beaconsfield in 1997, where the offending Conservative MP, Tim Smith, stood down before the contest and his replacement, Dominic Grieve, was comfortably re-elected. This is in contrast to Tatton, where the Tory MP Neil Hamilton did not stand down and was defeated by an independent candidate, Martin Bell.
Even the race for second place is not particularly interesting: if I were any of the opposition parties, I would probably use this by-election as an opportunity to test out any methodological innovations I might want to try (different approaches to canvassing in different wards, say), safe in the knowledge that whatever happens, a Conservative win in North Shropshire is essentially inevitable.
The one interest might be how the Green Party can do. They have, thus far, done a good job in doing well in Conservative-Liberal Democrat battlegrounds where the Liberal Democrats’ fortunes have never recovered from the days of coalition, in addition to making inroads into Labour citadels in university towns and big cities. The Green Party have also had some success, in traditionally Conservative areas that have never shown much interest in voting Labour or Liberal Democrat. If they can make a strong showing here, it would demonstrate an ability to win Tory votes in seats that had previously never been threatened by a progressive challenger.