17 December 2021

After North Shropshire, ‘listening’ is not nearly enough for Boris Johnson

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So much for the season of goodwill. The voters of North Shropshire decided that if the Prime Minister was going to spoil their Christmas then they would spoil his. Two years ago the Conservatives won the constituency with a majority of almost 23,000 votes. Yesterday’s by-election resulted in the Liberal Democats’ Helen Morgan gaining the seat with a majority of nearly 6,000. 

The opinion polls had already turned against the Conservatives, but a by-election drubbing brings that disgruntlement to life in a particularly vivid way. Party chairman Oliver Dowden toured the studios this morning saying the Government would now ‘listen’, but which of the varied and contrary messages of this by-election are they going to tune into?

As ever with by-elections, there were several factors to unpick in the poor Conservative performance. The most general is the axiomatic fact that governing parties tend to do badly in by-elections, which is true but seldom happens on this kind of scale.

The circumstances of Owen Paterson’s resignation undoubtedly weighed heavily. Many voters in the constituency felt let down not just by his rule-breaking lobbying, but by his lack of contrition and Boris Johnson’s abortive efforts to protect him. However, others may feel Paterson was unfairly treated. He argued that the rules gave an exception of highlighting ‘serious wrong’ when it came to raising issues with ministers and that deficiencies in milk testing justified this. This defence may not have resonated with the general public but attracted rather more serious attention from the dairy farmers of Shropshire.  So, some refused to vote Conservative because they thought Paterson was a scoundrel. Others refused to vote Conservative because they thought Paterson hadn’t been given his due.

Choosing a candidate from Birmingham, Neil Shastri-Hurst, was not good enough – nor was the laughable suggestion that because he was Birmingham he counted as ‘local’. Worse still was restricting Shastri-Hurst from giving interviews. That control freakery from CCHQ goes down badly not just with the media, but with voters too.

Then we have the deep divisions over Covid restrictions, writ large with the mid-week Commons rebellion against vaccine passports. The libertarian cohort may still be a minority but it is becoming more indignant. Others are understandably frightened of what Omicron will mean and worry the restrictions are too little, too late. What unites them all is fury at the hypocrisy of the Government not following the rules imposed on the rest of us. 

So Dowden can ‘listen’ as hard as he likes but what he chooses to hear from the discordant voices of Oswestry, Market Drayton and the others assorted picturesque towns and villages of North Shropshire is another matter.

So far as Brexit is concerned, there is little evidence that a Lib Dem triumph in a Leave-voting area means there is an upsurge in demand to rejoin the EU – an idea clung to only by the most starry-eyed Remainiacs. However, it would be fair to say that many Brexiteers are tiring of the ‘post-euphoria, pre-delivery stage’ of life outside the EU, to borrow a phrase that was fashionable a couple of years after Tony Blair became Prime Minister.

We now have the freedom to get rid of the red tape inherited from Brussels, but have so far not done much about it. This is a particularly important issue for farmers who were robust in expressing their views when canvassed. Their mood was not helped by an interview the Prime Minister gave to Andrew Marr on October 3. Responding to a question about 120,000 pigs potentially being culled due to a shortage of abattoir workers, Johnson offered a reply that was both tin-eared and factually awry: ‘I hate to break it to you but I am afraid our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals. I think your viewers need to understand that.’

Perhaps it was one of Boris’s jokes. Perhaps he hadn’t bothered to read his briefing paper on the matter. Either way, you can see how the pig farmers of Shropshire and elsewhere might be displeased. Of course, even in North Shropshire, farmers do not make up a majority of the electorate – but they do command respect from the wider community. Conservatives used to have a special affinity with them – a traditional bond that had a romantic, emotional quality. It’s the sort of feeling Labour used to have for coal miners, and the Tories ought to be donig their level best to renew it.

The inquest is one thing, but what is the longer term significance of this result?

For the Lib Dems, it is a greater achievement than June’s victory in Chesham and Amersham. Back then they were building on a second place finish at the 2019 election, whereas in North Shropshire they had only come third. Add in that this was a rock solid, Leave-voting Tory seat and the result is all the more remarkable. Though people are always keen to delve in great depth into by-election voting trends and pointlessly extrapolate to the whole country, one thing we can say with total confidence is that the Lib Dems remain very good at fighting by-elections.

As for Labour, few would have expected them to win the seat, but nor do they have a great deal to cheer about. Equally, the idea put about by some of Keir Starmer’s leftwing opponents that this is some kind of ‘blow’ to his leadership is arrant nonsense – it’s Labour’s fortunes in seats like Hartlepool that matter, not North Shropshire.

For the Conservatives, it should hopefully concentrate minds. For all the fevered speculation, I doubt the 54 letters from MPs needed for a no confidence vote will materialise any time soon. What most Tory MPs want is not the drama of another leadership race, but for the PM to start implementing traditional, pro-growth Conservative policies. Not just because they calculate that doing so will bring electoral success, but because it is what they believe in. 

The Tory MP Charles Walker called the mass Tory rebellion against Covid passports a ‘cry of pain’. Well, if that was a cry, then the voters of North Shropshire have let out a deafening roar, if only by so many of them staying at home. It’s clear the Government needs to reconnect with its natural supporters. And though listening is a good start, what both MPs and voters really want to see is a reaction – Boris had better get to it.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.