According to the media the result of the North Shropshire by-election spells disaster for the Conservatives. At first glance the doom merchants appear to have a point: in 2019 Owen Patterson obtained a very healthy 63% of the vote; two years later that support has evaporated. Neil Shastri-Hurst, Patterson’s successor, obtained just 32% of the vote this time round.
With talk of ‘political earthquakes’ filling the columns and airwaves, does the Conservative Party now stand on the brink? Not necessarily. Looking beyond the hype the picture might not be quite as apocalyptic as the media suggests. The Conservatives may have indeed lost North Shropshire, a previously safe seat, but it’s by no means all bad news. Paradoxically, the result might even give cause for optimism.
Admittedly, on the figures alone the result seems nothing short of catastrophic for Boris Johnson’s party. Some good news however is found in Labour’s similarly dismal performance. Sir Keir Starmer’s party suffered losses of an equal magnitude to their rivals. From garnering 22% of the vote in 2019, Labour managed just under 10% this time round. At a time when the Conservative Party is under fire from all directions, in terms of the UK’s wider political ecology, Labour’s failure to capitalise might be indicative of a party regarded as enabling rather than opposing government and therefore indistinguishable from it.
Indeed, disaffected Tory voters appear to have simply changed their allegiance to the Liberal Democrats, a predictable enough switch. Extrapolating from what then was clearly a protest vote becomes problematical: the result almost certainly indicates a temporary rather than permanent re-alignment – the line taken by senior Conservatives who are already prophesying a General Election turnaround when the time comes in two or three years’ time.
As to why the Conservative vote has so spectacularly collapsed, opinion is divided. There may be a new incumbent in North Shropshire and Owen Patterson has always been held in high regard, but a changing of the guard can hardly account for such a reversal. Meanwhile, political pundits point the finger at illicit Xmas parties which allegedly took place in multiple party offices. Distaste for hypocrisy thus appears to be the explanation of choice among talking heads.
That faithful voters were merely venting their spleens offers one crumb of comfort for senior Conservatives who can console themselves with the thought that, when it comes to the ballot box, memories can be extremely short. But could disaffection have another, more profound cause? Perhaps the reason why both major political parties flunked so badly is linked to their continued support for ever more tighter restrictions on personal liberty, their seeming joint determination to impose ever more draconian measures on the population since the emergence of omnicron - a possibility that only mainstream pundits could fail to consider.
Voting motivations aside, the Tories arguably come out of North Shropshire stirred but hardly shaken. For the most significant result of the night is surely the dismal performance of alternatives to Johnson’s beleaguered party i.e. actual right-of-centre parties. Reform, Reclaim and UKIP all had a torrid night, unable to muster a little over 5% of the vote between them.
In fact, though it never came close to happening, there could have been a much grimmer scenario for the Tories than a protest vote beneficial to the LibDems. Even if they had retained the seat with a reduced majority, encroachment into the Tory vote by the Reform Party would have been a cause for far greater concern. As it stands, party hierarchy can and no doubt will conclude that by shunning Richard Tice’s party, voters are a merely a little cross, disgruntled at worse. Perhaps the pundits are right for once; perhaps it’s the rank hypocrisy of the Conservative Party that grates and not its casual disregard for civil liberties.
While the North Shropshire by-election may not quite be the earth-shattering event portrayed by the media, it brings into stark reality the trajectory of travel under Johnson’s Conservatives. Despite its facilitation of dinghy crossings, proposed tax increases and its descent into some form of radical eco-socialism, it’s crystal clear that traditional Tory voters see no credible alternative to the Conservative Party.
For this by-election was the base’s opportunity to send a resounding message to high command. That’s not to say a message was not duly received, because it was: it doesn’t matter how far away from conservative principles the party drifts, we, the Tory faithful, will stick with the party. This is not only good news, but exceptionally wonderful news for Johnson’s red and green hybrid party which can continue to press ahead with its radical agenda unfettered and completely unchallenged.
Little wonder then in the aftermath of North Shropshire the mood in Conservative Central Office is so bullish. Ironically, the crushing LibDem victory far from weakening may have actually fortified Boris Johnson’s position. Expect therefore to hear the sinister ‘build back better’ strapline and all it implies more, not less, in the months ahead.