North Shropshire: Johnson faces tricky vote in party heartland Candidates in the North Shropshire by-election, left to right, Duncan Kerr, Green Party, Helen Morgan, Liberal Democrats, Ben Wood, Labour and Neil Shastri-Hurst, Conservatives, take part in a hustings event at St John’s Methodist Church on December 07, 2021 in Whitchurch, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
IN less turbulent times, returning a Conservative MP at a by-election in a rural English constituency that has never voted for any other party would be straightforward.
North Shropshire, with slightly more than 80,000 voters, returned its last lawmaker from prime minister Boris Johnson’s party with a whopping 23,000 majority.
But ahead of polls opening on Thursday (16), Johnson is struggling to convince many to stick with him after weeks of political scandal, prompting predictions of a historic defeat.
For a leader long seen as defying political gravity, the loss of the traditionally safe seat could see his hold on power come crashing down.
According to The Times, turnout is expected to be low for the election with days left before Christmas. In the recent Old Bexley & Sidcup by-election, the Tory majority was squeezed when supporters refused to go to the polls.
Tory MPs were ordered to travel to North Shropshire to support their candidate, Neil Shastri-Hurst, 38, a barrister and former army doctor. The prime minister himself came to Oswestry to watch Shastri-Hurst deliver booster jabs, but blundered by calling him “Neil Shastri-Hughes”.
The grounds now serve as the Lib Dem campaign base and it is from here that the party dreams of taking a second Tory scalp this year after winning the Chesham & Amersham by-election.
Helen Morgan, the Lib Dem candidate, is leveraging local issues such as ambulance response times and farmers’ frustrations with the Australia and New Zealand trade deals in the hope of improving on a third-place finish behind Labour in the 2019 election.
Unlike Shastri-Hurst, who started renting in the constituency shortly after being selected, Morgan, 46, is a local. “My sense is that turnout won’t be that great and that there are quite a lot of demotivated Conservatives,” she told The Times. “Local people really do think they want somebody who is embedded in their community.”
In the market town of Whitchurch, north of Shrewsbury in central England, Martin Price, 51, said he voted Conservative at the last general election in December 2019.
But he is adamant he will not do so on Thursday. “They’re a bunch of liars — it’s a disgrace. They’re all in it for themselves,” he said.
Outside a local supermarket, school worker Gale Groom, 55, agreed. “Boris is a waste of time,” she said.
“I thought he’d be good — because obviously I voted for him before — but I think over the pandemic and everything he’s been just not the best.”
Johnson — Britain’s Brexit champion who won a landslide election victory in 2019 dominated by the issue — has been dogged by controversies since early last month.
It began with his unsuccessful attempt to change parliament’s disciplinary rules after North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson was found guilty of illegal lobbying.
Paterson, who had held the seat since 1997, then quit, forcing the by-election.
The crisis, though, was soon eclipsed by reports that Johnson and his staff broke Covid rules last year by holding several parties around Christmas when the public were told to cancel their festive plans.
The UK leader’s efforts to contain the outcry were undercut by a video showing staff joking about the events and then a photo of Johnson taking part in a festive online quiz.
“It just confirms what I, and my family, and many others have been thinking for a long time: that this man is not fit to be prime minister,” said Garry Churchill, 71.
“I can’t imagine why people would vote for the Conservative candidate in this by-election. I think he should resign, go home and look after his new baby and keep out of politics.”
North Shropshire has voted Conservative since the seat was created in its modern form in 1983.
Ordinarily, local issues such as jobs, farming and transport would typically score high among its residents’ electoral concerns.
But Thursday’s poll is increasingly seen as a referendum on Johnson’s premiership.
The Liberal Democrats are touted as having the best chance of overturning the huge majority, helped by tactical Labour voting to maximise Johnson’s political pain.
“I’ll be voting for the Liberal Democrats because I’m so offended by the performance of Johnson,” said self-declared socialist Martin Hill, 68, who usually votes Labour.
“It’ll be a tactical vote — I want to give Johnson a slap in the face,” the retired chemical engineer added, calling him “a dishonest man”.
“He wouldn’t recognise honesty or integrity if it jumped up and down in front of him dressed as Peppa Pig,” Hill said, referring to the cartoon character the prime minister spoke of at length in a recent rambling speech.
If the Conservatives lose, MPs are likely to start filing letters of no-confidence in Johnson, which could trigger an internal vote to remove him as party leader.
The same process saw his predecessor Theresa May ousted in mid-2019.
However, some in Whitchurch are standing by Johnson and prepared to overlook any transgressions.
“I think Boris Johnson’s been a bit silly really… like a naughty little schoolboy,” said 67-year-old Sue Parkinson, who has voted Conservative for the last two decades.
“I don’t think it’s enough for us to say: ‘right, we want a new leader now’, because I think Boris has done an excellent job.”
Charity shop manager Susan Sealy, 63, said she would vote as she did in 2019.
“I have faith in the Conservatives,” she said. “I’m quite proud of what the Conservative party has done during the lockdown, with the furlough and everything else.
“They’ve done more than some countries have done.”