This week would have seen the end of Owen Paterson’s temporary suspension from Parliament for breaking lobbying rules over his advocacy for Randox Laboratories – the company that dominates the Covid travel testing industry. It was a slap on the wrist for a breach of his duty in public office which would have likely blown over with little notice. But Boris Johnson attempted to save Paterson from his 30-day absence by dissolving the committee who found he had breached Commons standards; just a day later they U-turned and Paterson resigned from Parliament. For good.
The by-election to replace the ousted MP takes place today, the second of three by-elections in quick succession: Old Bexley and Sidcup went to the polls recently following the passing of James Brokenshire, and Southend West will elect a new MP in early 2022, following the murder of Sir David Amess in October.
All three seats are strong Conservative majorities; the party retained control in Old Bexley and Sidcup with a reduced majority, and will retain Southend West with no major parties standing following Amess’ murder.
However, Paterson’s old constituency of North Shropshire – despite having a majority of over 23,000 – is seen as a potential scalp, not for a resurgent Labour, but for the Liberal Democrats. In recent polls, the Lib Dems are shown as practically neck-and-neck with the Conservatives, in what could be their second major by-election scalp of the year. They defeated the Conservatives in the previously safe seat of Chesham and Amersham.
Following Paterson’s resignation, there had been calls for the opposition parties to unite and place an ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate, with cross-party support, up against the Conservative candidate. This was rejected by the major parties, but the Liberal Democrats threw everything at the campaign and quickly picked up momentum as the major challenger.
Labour, although still campaigning hard, have somewhat backed off the constituency, with few major party figures campaigning on North Shropshire doorsteps. The result has been that the Liberal Democrats became the bookmaker’s favourites just 48 hours before polls opened. Polling throughout the campaign has shown the Liberal Democrats as the major challengers, despite Labour typically being the constituencies runner-up in recent general elections.
Locally, the Liberal Democrats are campaigning hard for the constituency. They are a more natural home for disaffected Tories than a Labour Party that was led by left-wing Jeremy Corbyn when North Shropshire handed Paterson his 23,000 majority. However, it is the Labour Party’s national campaigning that is doing more than anything to make North Shropshire competitive.
The continuation of ‘Tory sleaze’ as a major news story has seen their popularity fall sharply in recent weeks, with Labour – who had long been knocking on the door of topping national polls – taking a sharp lead and building their best poll numbers in more than half a decade. Partly, this has been the result of Labour’s efforts to keep ‘Tory sleaze’ in the news, but also the work of journalists such as Pippa Crerar who have uncovered senior Conservative politicians breaking lockdown rules last winter.
The prime minister himself was accused of breaking rules. He hosted a quiz via Zoom for staffers holding a party in number 10, whilst flanked by two aides that were not part of his household (breaking the no household mixing rule he had implemented).
However, the biggest smoking gun was a photo of former London Mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, hosting a party in CCHQ – the Conservative’s head office – flanked by donors and aides whilst the UK was in lockdown. The Liberal Democrats have subsequently used the image in their campaign to win North Shropshire.
What will likely happen?
Despite being the bookmaker’s favourites, much of the polling still suggests that the Liberal Democrats will miss out on claiming the seat from the Conservatives. Major Conservative Party figures, including Party Chairman Oliver Dowden, have descended on the constituency in recent days, and the bookmakers have edged the Conservatives in front once again.
The Conservative Party candidate, Neil Shastri-Hurst, has been much criticised for being the only candidate for a major party to not live in the constituency, hailing from Birmingham, where he practices as a barrister in medical law; he was formerly a doctor.
A local Conservative Party councillor defected in protest at Shastri-Hurst’s selection and it was seen by many as a barometer that he would be difficult to swallow for local Conservatives who are the life-blood of campaigning.
It has proved to be that way, with the polls suggesting that the largest challenge on election day for the Conservatives will be ensuring their voters actually go to the polls.
It is likely that the turnout of Conservative voters will decline rapidly, with many choosing to spend their Thursday at home, rather than going to the polls, but that the Liberal Democrats would be unable to find enough votes to take them across the line.
A much-reduced majority for the Conservatives will be the most likely outcome, with a Liberal Democrat and Labour combined vote share probably having been enough to claim a victory. This would inevitably lead to finger-pointing by activists for both parties, but realistically, in such a significant by-election, neither could fully stand down in support of the other.
What if they did lose it?
If the Conservatives are to lose the constituency it would top an awful fortnight for the prime minister, who has seen a backbench rebellion against his ‘Plan B’, scandals for several Christmas parties allegedly held during lockdown, and the worst poll numbers he has ever experienced.
It could be another nail in a rapidly assembling coffin for his leadership.
Even a victory, with a much-cut majority, would send alarm bells ringing in the backbenches, with the 1922 Committee – the committee of backbench Conservative MPs – already getting jittery about his leadership damaging their chances of re-election the next time the whole country goes to the polls.