By any reasonable standard the result in the North Shropshire by-election must be reckoned the funniest in years. Perhaps even decades. All governments need checking from time to time and desserts are always served justly. So this is a welcome result and not just because it is, viewed objectively, hilarious.
Nevertheless, it is quite an achievement to lose a seat held by the Conservatives, in one shape of another, for 120 years. To do so just two years after winning more than 60 per cent of the vote and a majority of almost 23,000 votes is quite something. To do so to the Liberal Democrats, who took just ten per cent of the vote in 2019, is really quite something.
But who can doubt it is a thoroughly deserved kind of disaster for the Conservative party? In the first place, this was a by-election the government brought upon itself. There should have been no need for it but Boris Johnson and his chums created the circumstances in which it became unavoidable. Had Owen Paterson puckered-up and accepted the censure of the parliamentary standards committee he would have served a 30 day suspension and returned to the House of Commons, um, today.
Paterson’s disinclination to accept the committee’s unanimous verdict that he had abused his position and acted as a paid advocate was one thing; the government’s attempt to subvert or defang or otherwise nobble the standards committee was quite another. A low moment, even for this wretched ministry. Rules that apply to others should not apply to sound chaps and certainly not to a fine fellow such as Mr Paterson. One of us, you know.
That proved a typically thoughtless, if grotesque, miscalculation and the surprise was less that the government thought it could get away with this chicanery than that, on this occasion, it could not. Paterson duly flounced off into the comfy pastures of a private life, forcing a wholly needless by-election.
The Paterson Affair was a one or two day story the government amusingly extended into a ten day saga. And then came the Downing Street Christmas party, of which little more need be said than it demonstrated the kind of stupidity you’d rather hope might not be so widespread in a workspace notionally dedicated to running the country. The sin was foolish enough, the government’s decision to lie – and lie and lie and lie again – about what happened is both baffling and revealing. The former because candour is usually the key to escaping from difficult situations, the latter because this government’s instincts run away from candour, not towards it.
People can see this sort of thing and they know when they are being played for fools. As a general rule, they don’t like it. When this happens, you get things like North Shropshire.
Doubtless there will be calls for lessons to be learned, for pages to be turned, for reset buttons to be pressed. We will be told the Prime Minister ‘gets it’ and there will be talk of a fresher, sharper, Downing Street operation. All the familiar tunes will be played and none of them will mean anything. The Prime Minister’s advisers are not the problem; the Prime Minister is the problem. If Downing Street is chaotic it is because chaos starts at the top. The Boris you see is the Boris you get and there is no fantastical Better Boris waiting to emerge from its chrysalis. Tory MPs made him and must live with the consequences. So, of course, must the country.
Nor is it any good observing that without the pandemic the Tories would have held North Shropshire easily. For the pandemic is a new reality which will be with us some time yet. It has exposed Johnson’s limitations and once seen such things are not easily forgotten.
Granted, some measure of this revolt may be ascribed to a general despondency. Voters have been through plenty these past eighteen months and they have tired of the sacrifices they have made even as they understand their necessity. It has been a grinding, wearisome, time however and given the opportunity to vent, voters will take it.
But look at the detail, too: Labour typically come second in North Shropshire but in this by-election – on a respectable 46 per cent turnout – Labour’s vote fell by 12 points. This should actually please Keir Starmer for it is further evidence voters are gravitating towards the party best placed to defeat the Conservatives in any given constituency, in this case the Lib Dems. Labour tribalism is a problem for the Labour party in as much as Starmer badly needs the Lib Dems to take Tory seats at the next election. If Labour voters are wising up to that, Starmer’s prospects are significantly enhanced. That, as much as anything else, is what should concern the Conservatives this morning.
In the meantime, however, it is important to note just how funny this by-election result has been and not least because, heaven knows, entertainment and good cheer are in short supply this Christmas season.
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