Whoever thought that Shropshire would dominate the news headlines from before most people had woken today and will still be headlining when they went to bed. Who’d have thought that the Lib Dems could win one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, overturning a majority of 23,000 and racking up a majority of 6,000. It had been a Tory seat for nearly two centuries.
This is the stuff of dreams. Sometimes dreams come true. And for some people, other people’s dreams become a nightmare. Including for Boris Johnson.
Helen Morgan’s win in North Shropshire was not a one off. It builds on Sarah Green’s win for the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham in the summer. It shows the Lib Dems are building strength again after some hard knocks in recent years.
We knew we had won well before 2am this morning as our observers watched the votes being sorted into bundles at Sundorne Sports Village. Across the country, Lib Dem activists were popping corks before 3am, including here in Chateau Boddington. The official result came shortly after 4am. And the headlines haven’t stopped since.
Media reports have emphasised partying in Downing Street and Whitehall during the lockdown in London last Christmas as one of the reasons for the devasting defeat for the Conservatives. The arrogance and breach of trust shown by those at the heart of government was important in the by-election. Early on, no one seemed to care much about Owen Paterson’s misadventure into sleaze. The partying scandal by the ruling party grew at the end of the campaign. It proved perfect for media vox pox which is why we have heard so much about it today but for many people it probably wasn’t a vote decider.
The issues that the election hinged on were rather more day-to-day, with one exception.
To deal with the exception first. The Conservatives selected Neil Shastri-Hurst from Birmingham as candidate over the heads of local Conservatives. One of the notable features of this campaign was that only a few Shropshire Conservatives turned out to campaign for Dr Shastri-Hurst. He also, inevitably, showed a lack of knowledge of the area, refusing media interviews in his first week for fear that his lack of knowledge of North Shropshire would show. The Conservatives might have got away this in a major conurbation but North Shropshire is deeply rural. His lack of knowledge was still showing in the final days of the campaign. It takes a lot of knowing to understand how a rural area like this ticks.
The main issues during the campaign were the day-to-day issues the residents in North Shropshire face. The difficulty in getting access to GPs amid unprecedented housing growth. The second longest ambulance waiting times in England for transfer of patients into A&E. Public transport. Lack of. Affordable housing. Lack of. More generally. Rural services. Lack of.
And there was the plea heard on doorsteps across North Shropshire. That people felt that had been taken for granted because the Tory seat was considered to be so safe. Time and time again, people told our campaign team: “Thank you for listening – no one has tried to contact us before.”
Boris Johnson also proved to be the gift that just kept on giving. There seems to be almost no one left who believes he has integrity or competence. Every time, he spoke in parliament or addressed the nation, he shed shed-loads of Tory votes.
The effort by the Lib Dems was extraordinary. Around 1,500 volunteers pounding the streets and striding up the drives of North Shropshire last week. The volunteers came from the Orkneys to Cornwall, and from East Anglia to Wales. On one evening earlier this week, 1,000 phone calls were made by volunteers Zooming in from around the country.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader came to knock on the doors of North Shropshire five times. He would have come again had he not tested positive for Covid-19 a few days ago. But, physically isolated, he picked up the phone instead. The Conservatives fielded Boris Johnson just once. On that occasion, he got the name of his party’s candidate wrong. Keir Starmer didn’t show.
There is a lot to learn from this by-election result. Including about how it will change the political landscape Shropshire and The Marches. And how it might shift the political landscape across the country. I’ll write more on that shortly.