It's time to take the Lib Dems seriously again

17 December 2021

8:49 PM

17 December 2021

8:49 PM

As far as seismic by-election results go, North Shropshire is one for the ages. The Tories had held onto the seat for 200 years before they lost to the Liberal Democrats last night. And their majority at the last general election was over 22,000. The Lib Dems managed to increase their share of the vote from 10 to 47 per cent, leapfrogging Labour in the process.

But is North Shropshire the beginning of a Lib Dems resurgence? And, more importantly, how worried should the Conservative party be about the party’s rise?

For starters, this is an even worse result for the Tories than their Chesham and Amersham by-election loss to the Lib Dems in June. North Shropshire is also a much more impressive win for the Lib Dems.

The Chesham and Amersham by-election was fought over a Remain-voting London commuter belt seat filled with liberal voters who generally plumped for the Conservatives to keep their taxes low, rather than dyed-in-the-wool Tories. The Lib Dems also effectively exploited a looming planning bill which would have made it harder to oppose new buildings in the area. The Tory loss in that by-election was, at least, understandable.

None of those factors were in play in North Shropshire yesterday. The area voted Leave in 2016, and the Lib Dems had no other major card to play in the constituency, other than making it a pure protest vote against Boris Johnson. You might then be tempted to say this was a one-off moment of outrage about Owen Paterson’s second job and that Tory voters will come flooding back at the next general election. CCHQ shouldn’t make that assumption. In fact, Thursday’s result should be seen as an existential crisis by Tory strategists.

Even if this was a just a protest vote, it was one of such gigantic proportions it can’t be that easily dismissed. If voters in a solidly safe Tory seat can revolt on this level, it suggests a level of anger against Boris Johnson and his party that is boiling out of control. Conservative MPs may want to take their time with Boris, and see if he recovers his standing with voters after Christmas, but North Shropshire should act as a warning that they may not have that luxury. This resentment against the Prime Minister could get even worse from here, so much so that even a new Tory leader may not be able to dig the party out of the mess in time for the next general election.

The Shropshire result also says something about the Lib Dems beyond the current scandals. After yesterday, you have to hand Ed Davey his due – he has turned his party into an electoral fighting force. The Tories can no longer assume that when the next general election comes round, the Lib Dems will turn to dust like they did in 2019. Yes, by-elections are a different beast, which allow a party with fewer resources like the Lib Dems to focus all their attention on just one seat. But if the Lib Dems can focus all their attention on 30 or 40 constituencies in the same way at the next general election, they now know how to take seats off the Conservatives.

North Shropshire also suggests that British politics is changing in ways that are bad for the Conservatives. In a seat that voted to Leave in the 2016 referendum by 60 per cent, a Remainer Lib Dem has managed to win with almost half the vote. This indicates that being anti-Brexit is no longer as toxic in Leave voting constituencies. A powerful tool in the Tory armoury has been neutered. The party can no longer shout that another candidate is a ‘Remainer’ and watch as Leave voters turn away in horror.

Finally, North Shropshire demonstrates the way in which Labour and the Lib Dems might complement one another at the next general election, with the Lib Dems only focusing their firepower on a concentrated number of Tory-held seats where Labour quietly lays low. If this works as well as it has done in the last few by-elections the Tories should be very worried, particularly when you bear in mind that anything less than a majority would be a disaster for the party.

The Conservative party may wish to see this as an event coloured by the circumstances of Owen Paterson’s resignation and the ensuing sleaze scandal. They will be tempted to think that everything will be alright once the dust settles on this by-election.

But that line of thinking carries huge risks. North Shropshire shows that British politics is changing fast. The Tories would do well to understand the direction of travel before it’s too late.

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