By Charlie Kimber
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2786

North Shropshire election shows Tories are cracking apart—but Labour is no challenge

The result is a mighty judgment on Johnson’s regime of corruption and lies—but without resistance, the right could emerge stronger
Issue 2786
After North Shropshire by-election former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron holds a large blue baloon with 'Boris' bubble' written on it, as election winner Helen Morgan prepares to burst it with a large yellow pin

Lib Dem winner Helen Morgan and former leader Tim Farron take credit for Tory defeat (Picture: PA Images)

In a shattering blow for Boris Johnson, the Tories have lost the North Shropshire seat they held for nearly 200 years to the Liberal Democrats.

The loss of a 23,000 majority is a mighty judgment on Johnson’s regime of corruption and lies. And it will fuel the calls for him to go, not least from some of his own MPs. 

Veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale told Radio 4, “I think this has to be seen as a referendum on the prime minister’s performance and I think that the prime minister is now in ‘last orders’ time.”

“Two strikes already. One more strike and he’s out. The Conservative Party has a reputation for not taking prisoners. If the prime minister fails, the prime minister goes.”

The Lib Dem majority was more than the total vote the party had taken at the 2019 general election.

Lib Dem leader Ed Davey called his party’s victory a “watershed moment in our politics.” He said it offers “hope” to voters across Britain “that a brighter future is possible”.

We won’t get that from the Lib Dems.

There can hardly have been a better by-election target for an opposition to beat the Tories.

A series of revelations showed how ministers and Tory officials partied last Christmas while people died from Covid and everyone else was subject to strict lockdown laws. The message from Number 10 was clear—the rich can do what they want, rules are for the little people, they don’t apply to us.

It has focused all the resentment about mega-contracts during the pandemic handed out to Tory donors and MPs’ mates. It has reminded everyone that Johnson’s claims to stand up for ordinary people against the elites are fakery.

North Shropshire was previously the seat of Owen Paterson, who a parliamentary standards committee found had received £500,000 from private businesses to lobby the government.

He resigned after Johnson’s manoeuvres to overturn his brief suspension from parliament caused outrage.

The soaring inflation figure announced earlier this week will have reminded voters that the Tories preside over a regime of falling living standards as well as sleaze.

The by-election turnout was only 46 percent. And frequently the Lib Dems grab a by-election win only for the seat to return to the government at the next general election.

But there are longer term trends that will unsettle the Tories.

North Shropshire voted 60 percent Leave in the 2016 referendum on European Union membership. It has now elected the frantically pro-Remain Lib Dems rather than the “get Brexit done” Tories.

But there is another party leader who should be worried by the result—although he won’t be. That’s Keir Starmer.

Almost all the media coverage pushed the line that the Lib Dems were the main challenger to the government and Labour didn’t have a chance.

But at the last general election Labour won 12,500 votes, more than twice the Lib Dems’ 5,500. And at the 2017 election Labour had almost six times the Lib Dem vote.

As Robert Shrimsley, the Financial Times newspaper’s British chief political commentator said, “A Labour Party on the verge of returning to office would have made itself the challenger here”.

Yet on Thursday Labour’s share of the vote was down 12 percentage points.

That’s partly because Starmer is so uninspiring. But it also reflects an informal deal that saw the Lib Dems make little effort at the recent Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election while Labour would go easy in North Shropshire.

That “progressive alliance” didn’t see Labour win in Old Bexley and Sidcup but it boosted the Lib Dems in North Shropshire.

The Lib Dems offer nothing to working class people. They are ruthlessly pro-business, anti-union and pro-privatisation. They were in coalition with the Tories to ram through austerity from 2010-15. Labour should never offer them favours.

The Tory vote base is cracking apart. But it’s not clear what happens to it.

A recent survey from the Britain Elects poll tracker showed that only 59 percent of 2019 Conservative voters still backed the Tories. But just 8 percent had moved to Labour, 7 percent to the post-Ukip Reform UK, and a mere 1 percent to the Lib Dems.

Nearly a quarter were unsure of who to vote for or wouldn’t vote at all.

With Labour and the trade unions failing to offer a fighting alternative to the government, the Tory right could emerge stronger from Johnson’s crisis.

It will be a spur to struggle if Johnson goes. That demand has to go out loud and clear. But he has to be forced out by action in the streets and the workplaces.

Johnson and his MPs happy to let people die

Boris Johnson’s crisis means the government is deliberately ignoring the surging threat of Covid-19.

Coronavirus cases hit a record high for the second day in a row on Thursday, with more than 88,000 people testing positive. Hospitals are braced for a large wave of admissions caused by the Tories’ failure to take action against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, warned it is “entirely possible” that daily hospital admissions could surpass the peaks from previous coronavirus waves.

But Johnson doesn’t want to take on his own MPs who oppose even the most minimal restrictions, let alone the necessary measures such as closing non-essential businesses.

The prime minister is now implementing his message from a year ago—“No more fucking lockdowns—let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”

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