Lost Without BrexitNorth Shropshire By-Election Shows ‘Tories Really Don’t Have A Message’
Conservative MPs fear that they will lose the safe seat – with traditional voters struggling to find reasons to stick with the party, reports Adam Bienkov
By any normal standards, the result in the North Shropshire by-election on Thursday shouldn’t even be close.
The former Conservative MP Owen Paterson retained the seat at the last general election with a huge 23,000 vote majority, while the Liberal Democrats trailed in a poor third.
And yet, as voters head to the polls tomorrow, there is genuine nervousness among Conservatives MPs that they are about to lose the seat to the Lib Dems.
“It’s still a very big majority to overcome but, in current circumstances, I think your central conclusion has to be that we’ll probably lose it,” one senior Conservative MP and former minister told Byline Times last week.
If that were to happen, it would pose an existential threat to Boris Johnson’s already embattled leadership.
Some in the party are quietly optimistic that they will narrowly cling on. However, the fact that such a safe Conservative seat should even be in play shows how serious the situation is.
“We have a real, genuine chance of winning,” one senior Liberal Democrat source, who has been campaigning in the seat, told Byline Times.
They reported that lifelong Conservative voters in the seat appear, for the first time, to be losing faith with the party after a torrid few months for the Government.
“It’s an improbably large mountain for us to climb but the Tory vote is so soft,” the source said. “The key thing is that the Tories really don’t have a message.”
No Positive Message
This lack of a message is something that is becoming a central complaint among many Conservative MPs worried about their electoral prospects under Johnson.
Whereas in 2019 the Conservatives relied on Brexit and the popularity of the Prime Minister to win over voters in seats such as North Shropshire, the party’s activists are now searching in vain for reasons to convince its traditional supporters to stay loyal.
“Given Brexit has happened there isn’t that sense of ‘oh I’m a lifelong Tory so I’ve got to back the Prime Minister to make it happen’,” one Lib Dem source said. “In fact, I’ve only had one voter mention Brexit to me and that was only in the context of ‘oh now that Brexit has happened I can vote for you lot again’.”
For the Lib Dem source, the governing party has nothing to offer those outside the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies it took from Labour in the 2019 General Election.
“What is their positive vision for the country now? In as much as there is one it is one about the Red Wall’,” the source told Byline Times. “But, if you’re not in a Red Wall area, then they’ve got very little to say.”
This absence of a message was also evident in the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June, in which the Liberal Democrats capitalised on a growing sense among traditional Conservative voters that they have been neglected by the Government and won the seat.
This feeling among traditional Conservative voters has been compounded by a Prime Minister who, even his own MPs admit, appears to have lost his way.
“The Prime Minister desperately needs to set out clearly the three or four things the Government are going to achieve next year post-COVID,” one former Conservative minister told Byline Times. “The question is: what is the point of the Government post-COVID? It just isn’t clear right now and [Johnson] just hasn’t made any attempt to do that in the last two-and-a-half years.”
The huge Conservative rebellion on Tuesday over Johnson’s new Coronavirus restrictions will only increase the sense that the party is on a downward slope.
Helping Hand From Labour?
Whether the Conservatives’ downward slope will be steep enough to overturn such a huge Conservative majority in North Shropshire remains to be seen.
One factor that could save Johnson’s party is the performance of Labour, which came second in the seat in 2019.
Keir Starmer’s party has been holding back national resources from the campaign in what appears to be an informal pact to help the Liberal Democrats. However, local Labour activists have still been pushing hard, which has led to a nervousness among some Lib Dems.
“Most voters get it, but if it comes down to just a handful of votes, we could find ourselves in territory where the Labour vote exceeds the difference with the Conservatives, which would be very bad,” one Lib Dem MP told Byline Times.
Others in the party are less worried, saying that most voters in the seat understand the need for tactical voting.
“When talking to people on the doorstep, they very much have got the message that this is a contest between us and the Conservatives,” one Lib Dem source said. “And I think most people understand that this is the sort of place that the Lib Dems have won before and it’s not really the sort of place that you would associate with Labour.”
With no constituency polling, it is difficult to judge quite how close the race is. However, the sheer amount of resources that the Lib Dems are pouring into the seat and the nervousness among Conservative MPs suggests that it could be genuinely in play.
Most Lib Dems are guarded about their chances. However, one senior MP in the party told Byline Times that there was a chance they could “romp it” on Thursday.
If that were to happen, Johnson’s leadership could – for the first time – be in serious danger.