Tory chair: North Shropshire voters have given us a kicking

The Conservative party co-chair Oliver Dowden has conceded that voters have given the government “a kicking” after the Liberal Democrats clinched an extraordinary victory in the North Shropshire byelection with a swing of 34%.

Boris Johnson is facing a backlash from Tory MPs after the result, which was worse for the government than even pessimists at Conservative campaign headquarters had feared.

Helen Morgan, the Lib Dem candidate, won 17,957 votes, 5,925 more than the Conservatives’ Neil Shastri-Hurst, while Labour’s Ben Wood was third with 3,686. Turnout was 46.3%.

Dowden told BBC Breakfast: “Voters were fed up and they gave us a kicking. They were fed up with a byelection that was called because of sleaze allegations; they were fed up with all the sort of stories that are going on at the moment.

“I take it that they are saying to us that we need to focus on the core job at hand,” he added, suggesting this meant pressing ahead with the vaccine booster programme.

The Tories’ catastrophic performance in a seat they won comfortably in 2019 with a majority of nearly 23,000 has renewed concerns about the prime minister’s leadership. The senior backbencher Roger Gale told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Johnson must take personal blame for the result.

“The electorate wanted to send a very clear message to Downing Street that they were dissatisfied with the management of this government,” he said. “I think this has to be seen as a referendum on the prime minister’s performance and I think that the prime minister is now in ‘last orders’ time. Two strikes already, one earlier this week in the vote in the Commons and now this. One more strike and he’s out.”

Johnson faced the biggest rebellion of his premiership earlier this week over Covid certification, with 100 Tory MPs voting against the government.

Some MPs had suggested in advance that they could consider sending letters to Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, demanding a vote of no confidence in Johnson if North Shropshire was lost. It would take 54 such letters to trigger a vote.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, who was unable to attend the count in person after testing positive for Covid, said: “This result is a watershed moment in our politics and offers hope to people around the country that a brighter future is possible. Millions of people are fed up with Boris Johnson and his failure to provide leadership throughout the pandemic, and last night the voters of North Shropshire spoke for all of them.”

North Shropshire has been a safe Tory seat since its creation

North Shropshire is the second supposedly safe seat won from the Tories at a byelection this year, after the Lib Dems took the Buckinghamshire constituency of Chesham and Amersham in June.

Davey said: “From Buckinghamshire to Shropshire, lifelong Conservatives have turned to the Liberal Democrats in their droves and sent a clear message to the prime minister that the party is over.”

The Liberal Democrats now have 14 MPs. In her victory speech, the new North Shropshire MP, Helen Morgan, a 46-year-old accountant and parish councillor, repeatedly targeted the prime minister, saying Conservative voters had been “dismayed by Boris Johnson’s lack of decency and [were] fed up with being taken for granted”.

The byelection was sparked by the resignation of the veteran Brexiter Owen Paterson after a botched attempt by the prime minister to prevent him being punished for paid lobbying.

Johnson’s decision to back Paterson crystallised Tory MPs’ concerns about his political judgment, and his authority has continued to be battered by a string of missteps and scandals – including the revelation of lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.

Shastri-Hurst, the losing North Shropshire candidate, was derided by opposition candidates as a “lawyer from Birmingham” and at one point during the campaign repeatedly declined to say whether he thought Johnson was a man of integrity.

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