Published:

Source: BBC.

It’s just as well for Boris Johnson that the Commons isn’t sitting today.  For were more MPs not back in their constituencies for recess, more letters would doubtless be winging their way to Graham Brady.

North Shropshire, a seat that has been Conservative since the Great Reform Act of 1832, has been won by the Liberal Democrats – gaining in the course of their victory the seventh biggest swing in modern times.

Five of the 14 parties that contested the constituencies won over a thousand votes.  Reform made no headway in the seat as a right-wing alternative to the Tories, coming last of the five with 1,427 votes, 3.7 per cent of the total.

The Greens scarcely did better, gaining 1,738 votes, a 4.5 per cent share.  That’s down from the 1790 they gained at the last election, even on a lower turnout, and the 3.2 per cent they won then.

Labour came second in 2019 but was squeezed into third place yesterday – its vote falling to 3,686 (9.6 per cent) from 12,495 (22.1 per cent).

The Conservative vote plummeted by more than half – from 35,444 (62.7 per cent) to 12,032 (31.6 per cent).  This result is an execrable showing for the Prime Minister.

The beneficiaries of the squeeze on Labour and the collapse of the Conservatives were inevitably the Liberal Democrats – fulfilling their traditional function as a vehicle of by-election protest.

In 2019, they won 5,643 votes, a ten per cent share.  That total more than tripled yesterday, reaching 17,957 votes, 47 per cent of the total.

Two other by-elections may help to put this result in perspective.  The swing to the Liberal Democrats yesterday was 31.1 points.  Only one by-election swing gained by that party in modern times exceeded it.

That was at Christchurch in 1993 – the fourth biggest swing in the table: 32.5 points.  Christopher Chope took the seat back for the Tories by just over 2000 votes in 1997.  Labour won the general election of that year by a landslide.

The other by-election to glance at by way of comparison is the recent Liberal Democrat win in Chesham and Amersham.

The swing there shows the sheer scale of that in North Shropshire – 25.1 compared to the latter’s 31.1.  The former was the 18th biggest swing in the chart.

Turnout yesterday, by the way, was a bit lower than in Chesham & Amersham – 46 per cent compared to 52 per cent, a reasonable enough showing in both cases.

You will have your own view of the degree to which the Owen Paterson affair drove the result – and of how much the Government’s handling of it, and events since, contributed to this pasting for the Prime Minister.

Neil Shastri-Hurst is a regular contributor to this site and can’t fairly be held responsible for the disaster – and a Liberal Democrat candidate other than Helen Morgan would doubtless have done just as well.

Were I putting the best possible gloss on the result for the Conservatives, I would cite Reform’s lack of traction and Labour’s fall to third following its failure to win Old Bexley and Sidcup (admittedly a tall order).

And I would add that a lesson of the Christchurch, Sutton & Cheam, Newbury, Orpington, Rippon and Ribble Valley by-elections over time is that seats won in them by the Liberal Democrats don’t usually stay yellow for long.

The pessimistic counter-view is that Britain has moved on from Johnson’s by-election win in Hartlepool, the Tories’ competitive showing in Batley & Spen, and their win in Old Bexley and Sidcup.

And that the current national mood leaves the Conservatives vulnerable to electoral protest and tactical voting for as long as Johnson leads them – and perhaps longer.

Graham Brady and the 1922 Committee officers have made it easier for those letters to come in today – since Sir Graham will now accept e-mails backed up by a phone call.

But it would be remarkable were 54 of them to arrive before Christmas.  Or indeed early in the New Year, if Omicron-driven hospital admissions take off.

For some Tory MPs mulling putting in a letter are likely to stay their hand if there is a sense of national crisis in January.

And as Charlotte Gill pointed out on this site yesterday, there may well be an “NHS crisis” in any event – driven by a mix of Omicron, other forms of Covid, flu, the operations backlog, and slow patient discharge.

However, it is impossible to calculate the political trade-offs between Omicron, Simon Case’s investigation into Downing Street parties, Christopher Geidt’s into Downing Street wallpaper…

…whatever the Standards Commissioner may do, and the present sense of voter disillusion with the Prime Minister – as they fix on their present priorities of the NHS, the cost of living and immigration. Plus, of course, “events”.

The consensus view in the Westminster Village is that a challenge to Johnson’s leadership is most likely after the local elections – but who knows?

Finally, the obvious: beware of extrapolating the result of the next general election from any by-election result, however spectacular.