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  • Scott Cresswell

North Shropshire By-Election: Boris Johnson's Fate Lies in the Balance


In the wake of revelations about Downing Street Parties that happened amid national lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured here, finds himself under large pressure.

Undoubtedly, the last few weeks have been the worst for Boris Johnson’s government. With the revelations of a Downing Street party before last Christmas angering an already-furious public, along with ministers like Jacob Rees-Mogg effectively mocking the public for following Covid-19 laws, questions about the Prime Minister’s future have obviously been raised.

Sir Keir Starmer, more brutal than ever, has claimed that Johnson is “not fit for office”, while even many Conservatives such as Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross have said that the Prime Minister should resign if he was found to be misleading the House. And according to The National, the last week has seen Google searches of “Cancel Conservative membership” soar. This has come at the worst possible time for Johnson and to put it simply, he has a reason to worry.

More often than not, by-elections have mustered very little enthusiasm or coverage in the media. Nine times out of ten, they take place in ultra-safe seats. However, with the government’s response to the pandemic, sleaze, and now the ‘Partygate’ scandal, the weather is changing, and Boris Johnson appears far more vulnerable, something unimaginable just two years ago after he stormed to an 80-seat majority.

Johnson’s Hartlepool triumph seems an age ago. The Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election, a seat once held by a former Conservative Prime Minister, should really have been a walkover for the Tories. Instead, the result produced a sizable swing of 10.2% from Tory to Labour, the best result for the centre-left party since their 2001 landslide. And this was before anybody outside the media or government knew anything about these party rumours. It’s a dangerous sign for Johnson’s premiership, and no doubt his worries are turned to Thursday’s by-election in North Shropshire.

North Shropshire shouldn’t even be in question. Yet, the by-election arose under controversy after the sleaze allegations against former MP Owen Patterson, but once he was obviously ruled out from standing for re-election and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties failed to unite behind a strong ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate, the hope of a Tory defeat became a dream. But after the events of the last week, it appears that the dream may be more potent.

The Liberal Democrats, despite finishing a distant third in 2019, now appear the main challengers to the Tories in North Shropshire. Some bookmakers have placed Liberal Democrat candidate Helen Morgan as the favourite to win, while polling has predicted a very close-two horse race. The embarrassing idea of aLabour-Liberal Democrat split, resulting in a default Tory victory, now appears unlikely as Labour are campaigning less there than they were in Old Bexley and Sidcup. However, the main question is how will the result affect Boris Johnson’s grip on power?

In the event of the Tory victory, no doubt Johnson will sigh with relief and his party, although far from tranquil, will accept him as a leader still harnessing some electability. If it goes the other way, either narrowly or dramatically, then a new Prime Minister in Number 10 early next year is not unlikely.

History has proved that a minority of by-elections have not just critically damaged leaders and Prime Ministers, but they have often contributed to their downfalls. The most famous in modern history is actually one which is fairly similar to the situation we find ourselves in today. Margaret Thatcher, although a Prime Minister with nine more years behind her than Johnson, faced a by-election in the ultra-safe Tory seat of Eastbourne in 1990. Thatcher had attacked the Liberal Democrats just weeks before, calling them “a dead parrot”. However, their gain of Eastbourne on a great swing of 20% from Conservative to Liberal Democrat during the height of the Poll Tax riots and Thatcher’s ongoing battle with her own party over Europe led to the end of the Iron Lady’s decade in power.

Other Prime Ministers, like James Callaghan in the late 1970s, suffered several by-election defeats that led to rebellions and eventually, in his case, a successful vote of no-confidence. Since then, Gordon Brown’s loss of Crewe and Nantwich in 2008 led to several rebellions against his leadership and even David Cameron, despite governing in a coalition for much of his premiership, found himself at the mercy of UKIP on several occasions. If North Shropshire falls, it would be the third instance in just over two years where the incumbent Conservative government loses a safe seat. The last few decades have proved that it is harder to hold onto the Prime Ministership than ever before.

Either way, with Boris Johnson’s government losing its lead in the polls to Labour, as the Liberal Democrats appear poised to gain North Shropshire, and as he fails to unify a divided Conservative Party behind him, perhaps the premiership of Boris Johnson will be one of the briefer, yet crucial, instalments in the history books…

Image - Flickr (Number 10)



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