5 November 2021

Labour are right to scotch the idea of an ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate in Shropshire North


No sooner was the ink dry on Owen Paterson’s resignation letter than people started suggesting a cross-party ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate for the upcoming by-election in Shropshire North. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens were, we learn, in informal talks about stepping aside to make way for such a candidate.

Thankfully, Labour didn’t take long to scotch the idea and announce they would be standing a candidate. Some will be up in arms that an opportunity for progressive collaboration has been passed up, but Keir Starmer’s team have undoubtedly made the right decision.

There are a number of objections, both practical and principled, to parties clubbing together to beat the Tories in this way.

For one thing, it looks like you’re second-guessing the electorate and failing to offer them a choice. It’s a strange kind of democratic politics where politicians cook up a backroom deal – for that’s what this would have been – and then present the voters with a much more limited choice than they would normally expect. The same argument holds when it comes to a broader anti-Tory ‘progressive alliance’, a suggestion I’d wager is far more popular among political obsessives than the general public.

It’s a particularly bad idea for Labour, if they aspire to be a party of government, to set a precedent of teaming up with smaller, weaker parties to topple the Tories. Notwithstanding the strictures of his party’s own rules on standing candidates, the message from Starmer must be that he and he alone can take the fight to Boris Johnson, even if the electoral arithmetic suggests that’s a Herculean task. Veterans of the 2015 election campaign will also recall how toxic the message that Labour would do deals with other parties can be.

Ah, but what about Martin Bell, the broadcaster who in 1997 overturned a 22,000 majority to trounce Neil Hamilton in Tatton? Well, that was then and this now. Bell was tapping into a very widely held view that the Major government was both venal and clapped out – and Hamilton, for all his protestations of innocence, was the poster boy for a certain type of sleazy Tory politics. Thanks to his work as a TV reporter, Bell also had a significant public profile of his own and a keen appreciation of how to make headlines. 

The biggest difference, of course, was that Bell was running against Hamilton himself, which gave his message far more potency. Short of the Tories selecting Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer as their candidate in Shropshire North, which I consider unlikely, the ‘anti-sleaze’ message won’t have all that much resonance. Of course, had Paterson been forced to contest a by-election by the recall mechanism, that would have been a rather different matter. In my view Labour standing aside would still have been a bad idea, but the argument would certainly have been more finely balanced.

The priority for the Conservatives now must be to play it safe, pick a local candidate who knows the seat well and offer a bread-and-butter message focused on a rebounding economy and local issues. Of course, Chesham and Amersham was a warning shot that even the safest Conservative seats can be vulnerable under the right circumstances, but Shropshire North is much more rural and pro-Brexit than suburban Buckinghamshire (though as one wag suggested on Twitter, the Lib Dems are probably still furiously searching for any local housing developments they can oppose).

I’m not generally one for firm predictions, and the six weeks or so between now and any by-election are a lifetime in politics. Still, given the circumstances of the by-election, and given that governments generally do badly in them, you would expect the Tory majority to be significantly reduced. If it is a bad result for the Tories, expect a cacophony of commentary about how Boris Johnson is in ‘serious trouble’ when he’s shedding votes in true-blue rural Shropshire.

I’d take that kind of hair-trigger analysis with the pinch of salt one should always use for by-election results. Nonetheless, even the staunchest Tory would struggle to argue this hasn’t been a deeply troubling week for the Conservatives – not just for the very damaging accusations of corruption, but because of the impression of a party that is not just feuding, but flailing.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.