Next week’s by-election in North Shropshire is throwing some up intriguing possibilities. As the finishing line comes into view, let’s assess the runners and riders.
On paper, this by-election should be a shoo-in for the Tories. North Shropshire is a true blue, Brexit-voting, gammon-munching rural seat that has only ever returned one non-Tory candidate and that was in the 1830s. Owen Paterson – the out-going MP – had held the seat for 24 years and was sitting on a 23,000 majority. What’s the problem?
Well, there’s a few.
First of all – and unusually in recent years – the right wing in the area is divided. Two local Tory councillors have defected to other parties. Mark Whittle, chairman of Market Drayton Conservatives, has gone to Reform UK while Anthony Allen has joined the Reclaim Party (if anyone can spot the difference between these two organisations, for God’s sake, let me know).
On the face of it, these defections appear to be trying to filch some of the Brexit vote from the Tories but the wider implications are more worrying. The Conservative party hasn’t been seriously divided since Johnson countered the threat of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (now Reform UK, do keep up) by out-Faraging Farage, making a heavy-footed lurch to the right and thereby mopping up all of Farage’s potential voters.
Now, it looks as if both Reform and Reclaim are using this by-election to goad the Tories even further right-wards. Allen has already said as much:
The Conservatives simply aren’t conservative any more. They have gone soft on illegal immigration, they’ve lost control of taxation and are obsessed with crippling green taxes nobody wants.
However, given that Boris Johnson is busy trying to undo the separation of powers while rank and file Tories want to transport legitimate asylum seekers to the Falkland Islands, I’m not sure this goading can achieve very much. There isn’t a lot of space on the right that the Tories are not already squatting in.
It’s possible that the only outcome of these two defections will be a divvying up of the Tory vote share. Wouldn’t that be a shame?
Opposition united – sort of
In an unexpected contrast, the progressive opposition may have, for once, got their act together. This gives the Tories their second problem in North Shropshire. For parliamentary elections, the Labour party traditionally comes second in this seat. But the Liberal Democrats did better than Labour in this year’s council elections. While both parties are adamant that there is absolutely no official pact between them – not even a tiny one – there are a few tell-tale straws to suggest that Labour has stepped back in North Shropshire to give the Liberal Democratic candidate, Helen Morgan, a better run at it.
This does make some sense. Right here, right now, the main aim for the progressive opposition is to pick up disenchanted Tory voters in North Shropshire. Those poor souls are highly unlikely to vote Labour but may find it within themselves to support the Liberal Democrats.
Both the parties are starting to look as if they understand the need for co-operation. Even if everyone is still not allowed to mention it. In Old Bexley and Sidcup last week, a light-touch Liberal Democrat presence helped Labour achieve a 7% swing. The Tories won but their majority got trashed from nearly 19000 thousand to 4478.
Paterson, parties and other problems
As the incumbent party in North Shropshire, the Tories face a number of other difficulties during this by-election – most of them, it has to be said, entirely of their own making.
The out-going MP, Owen Paterson, is one of them. He resigned the seat last month after finding himself at the heart of the latest season of the Tory Corruption box set. Johnson squandered a vast amount of political capital trying to protect him and then, in one of his signature U-turns, threw him to the wolves anyway.
Despite his majority, Paterson was not universally popular. Locals have come out of the woodwork moaning that he dropped into the area for a photo op every few years but was otherwise a negligible local presence.
Given that grumble, it is perhaps surprising that the Tory candidate for this by-election has no connections to the area whatsoever. Neil Shastri-Hurst is a barrister from Birmingham. The defective – oops, sorry – defector Councillor Whittle is unimpressed:
The Conservative candidate is from a city – he knows nothing about farming or anything Shropshire. I’m faced with no choice – how can I possibly back a candidate from Birmingham who has zero knowledge of North Shropshire and the challenges our community faces?
And only today, senior Tory figures have conceded that the right royal mess the government is making about the ‘alleged’ Downing Street Christmas party is really not helping. No-one, especially not a dignified Tory pearl-clutcher, likes being taken for a fool.
Give them a hand
The Tories will almost certainly retain the seat of North Shropshire next week. But never say never. The Liberal Democrats won in Chesham and Amersham, Maybe, just maybe, they can win here too.
If you care – and if you can – give them a hand next week.