Picture the scene: October 2021. The House of Commons has voted to suspend Conservative MP Owen Paterson for 30 sitting days following the findings of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards that he had breached the MPs’ Code of Conduct. Paterson received a slap on the wrist – albeit a pretty big one – and would, if he could navigate the threat of a recall petition, return to Parliament alongside his colleagues, getting ready for the Christmas recess right around now.
Instead, to try and avoid the scenario of a recall and a potential by-election in Paterson’s seat, the Government instructed Conservative MPs to vote for an amendment which would see the overhaul of the entire standards system, before performing a swift u-turn after realising how badly the move had gone with its own backbenchers and the public more widely. Oh, and Paterson resigned his seat anyway.
Fast forward to the present and the Paterson fiasco kickstarted a terrible few weeks for the Conservatives, who have been battling accusations of corruption and hypocrisy, with the Prime Minister himself receiving a barrage of criticism about his ability (and credibility) to lead. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and something the Prime Minister no doubt wishes he had in spades, but we are where we are.
Today, then, is by-election day in North Shropshire, and it is a far more interesting race than the Conservatives would have hoped. North Shropshire has been a safe blue seat historically. In 2019, Paterson was returned to Parliament with a majority of nearly 23,000, something many in the 2019 intake can only dream of. However, in recent days, the Liberal Democrats have been closing the gap, and Conservative and Liberal Democrat HQs will undoubtedly be following the count with bated breath, with the former hoping that the bookies have got it wrong.
Aside from the circumstances in which North Shropshire residents find themselves going to the polls, the fact that the race is close between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in itself is interesting.
Firstly, it has been Labour who has come second to the Conservatives in each of the past three elections, with the Liberal Democrats having not finished second for over a decade. Also, in recent days, polls nationwide have seen Labour overtake the Conservatives, with Labour leader Keir Starmer polling more favourably than Boris Johnson on capability as Prime Minister for the first time. Furthermore, the areas in which the Liberal Democrats have tended to do well in recent years have been those which voted substantially to remain in the EU, given that this has been a cornerstone of the Liberal Democrat platform since the referendum, yet 60% of North Shropshire voted to Leave. So why are the Liberal Democrats doing so well?
It comes down to resources. Labour, by its own admission, has limited the resources it has put into the by-election, whereas the Liberal Democrats prioritised North Shropshire over the recent Old Bexley and Sidcup race and have campaigned relentlessly on the perceived ‘Tory sleaze’ that has dominated the press in the past few weeks.
It hasn’t helped the Conservative cause to replace Owen Paterson – North Shropshire’s MP since 1997 – with a candidate who isn’t based locally. Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a barrister based in Birmingham, something his opponents haven’t allowed voters to forget. Shastri-Hurst has however (perhaps sensibly) distanced himself from Paterson, referring to his campaign as a “fresh start for North Shropshire”.
His Liberal Democrat opponent is Helen Morgan, who stood against Paterson in 2019 and secured 10% of the vote. Two thirds of Morgan’s campaign pledges are thinly veiled attacks on her potential predecessor and his party, as she assures the people of North Shropshire that she will “listen to you and not take you for granted” and “be a full-time local MP for North Shropshire”.
But do the Liberal Democrats really stand a chance? It would take some doing to overturn a Conservative majority of nearly 23,000, especially with the low turnouts attributed to by-elections, but it is not impossible. Unlike the late Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, I will not be promising to eat my hat if the Liberal Democrats do take the seat, but I will be watching closely to see if the people of North Shropshire send a significant warning shot to the Conservative Party and to the Prime Minister.