As the media continues to be saturated with stories of Christmas parties past, one party is unexpectedly struggling in North Shropshire with just seven days to go. That party is the Conservatives who have gone from being strong favourites to neck and neck with the Lib Dem’s Helen Morgan.
And now Boris Johnson is proving he is the party gift that keeps on giving.
The other political parties have been fading away as hundreds of Lib Dem campaigners have been picking up their phones and travelling to North Shropshire to leaflet and campaign. The Lib Dems are close to clinching the seat. A win will change the political landscape of Shropshire.
Of course, the bookies and their punters don’t always get things right. But the message from the doorsteps of North Shropshire is that the Lib Dems have steadily gained ground and that the Conservatives have rapidly lost ground. Some traditionally blue voters are lending their votes to the Lib Dems. Many more are planning to not turn out to vote next Thursday.
There has always been a sense that North Shropshire has been in the peripheral view of the Conservatives. If they thought about the constituency at all, they thought it was a safe out of way place. Rather than choosing a local person for the by-election, they selected a candidate from Birmingham with little knowledge of the constituency. A media report suggests senior Conservative Party officials have ordered the party’s candidate not to speak to media amid concerns he knows so little about the area.
The right leaning media has turned against Boris Johnson. The Times editorial yesterday says that Johnson “failed to apply common sense. To both deny there was a party and say that any party did not breach the rules failed logic and propriety.” The FT leader said “Partygate strains trust in Johnson’s government”. Conservative Home claimed: “A vote of no confidence in Johnson has suddenly become more likely than not.” The Telegraph talks of the Conservatives losing the seat and a leadership challenge to Johnson.
Although this by-election started with sleaze, it has not been a big issue on the doorsteps until recent days. The Times this morning says: “More than two thirds of voters are also now questioning Johnson’s integrity over his response to a Downing Street Christmas party held while London was, in effect, locked down.”
This by-election is not just about the North Shropshire seat. If the Lib Dems win North Shropshire, they will send a shock wave through the complacent Conservative politicians that have dominated this county for too long. They have ruled Shropshire Council almost dictatorially, including controlling the two planning committees and all four “independent” scrutiny committees. Voters are fed up with this hegemony. That’s why the Conservatives were weakened in the unitary elections last May. It didn’t help that they had deselected long standing councillors, leading to an astonishing blue on blue attack and the defeat of the council leader by Lib Dem Rob Wilson. Another deselected councillor in Market Drayton stood as an independent and was duly re-elected. The council leader breached the council’s constitution by sacking the vice-chair of a planning committee over a dispute over the local plan, only to be thwarted when he became an independent and continued in post. The arrogance of local Conservatives is only exceeded by their mismanagement of the county.
Johnson’s misadventures trying to explain away partying at Downing Street are overshadowing the limited support senior Conservatives have mustered for Neil Shastri-Hurst, their candidate in North Shropshire. Michael Gove was rolled out last weekend. Johnson himself made a visit on Friday, though he did not know the name of the candidate he was supporting, referring to him as Neil Shastri-Hughes not Neil Shastri-Hurst. Although the Conservatives have said they intend to flood the constituency with MPs and activists this weekend, they face an uphill battle as the scandals surrounding their party leader continue to mount.