In the end – astonishing as it may seem – the yellow victory was never really in doubt from the moment polls closed
Lib Dem activists have a phrase for the way they attack by-election campaigns where they sense an improbable victory: shock and awe.
At 4am on Friday morning in the Shrewsbury Sports Village, it felt entirely appropriate: their Conservative opponents here were utterly dazed.
In what will rank as one of the most stunning by-election results ever, the yellow rosette party overturned a 23,000 Tory majority in North Shropshire to steal this supposed safest of rural blue heartlands.
After a campaign in which they flooded the area with activists – in which leader Ed Davey visited five times, no less – Helen Morgan was announced as the area’s new MP with some 5,925 more votes than Tory rival Neil Shastri-Hurst.
It wasn’t just a victory, as the party’s treasury spokesperson Christine Jardine noted, it was a “comfortable” one. More to the point, it was historic: Friday is the first day this area has not had a blue MP in more than a century.
“Tonight, the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people,” said Morgan in her victory speech. “They have said loudly and clearly: ‘Boris Johnson, the party is over’.”
This was not, as it turned out, a speech that was five minutes of platitudes. The 46-year-old used her first platform as a parliamentarian to go firmly on the attack. She spoke of an NHS “teetering” on the brink; of local people struggling to make ends meet; and of a prime minister more interested in decorating his flat than the good of the country.
“Your government, run on lies and bluster, will be held accountable,” she said. “It will be scrutinised, it will be challenged and it can and will be defeated… Mr Johnson you are no leader.”
Voters here, she concluded, had been left “dismayed by Boris Johnson’s lack of decency”.
In the end – astonishing as it may seem – the yellow victory was never really in doubt from the moment polls closed at 10pm on Thursday.
A flurry of rumours around midnight suggested a better-than-expected showing for Labour candidate Ben Wood could deny Morgan a famous result here and help the Tories retain the seat.
But, as the evening progressed, it became increasingly clear that anger over perceived Downing Street sleaze and misconduct had coalesced around the yellow vote. In particular, it was noted early on, the Lib Dems appeared to have taken large numbers of postal ballots – most of which would have been cast long before last week’s revelations of a lockdown-breaking Downing Street Christmas party caused widespread public fury.
“Once you factor in that anger to the remaining votes,” said David Vasmer, leader of the Lib Dems on Shropshire Council around 1am, “the numbers could be really good”.
When his prediction ultimately came true – the swing was an astonishing 34 per cent; even bigger than that in Chesham and Amersham in June – he could hardly hide his excitement.
“Ecstatic,” he said. “Over the moon. To end 200 years of Tory dominance is the most wonderful thing. Whatever happens now, they will never take the people of North Shropshire for granted again.”
How would he celebrate? It was gone 4am, he noted. He was going home to bed.
So, too, were those shell-shocked Tories. There had been party briefings all day that they might lose but no-one thought it would be this bad. A devastated-looking Shastri-Hurst headed straight for the door after the results were announced, stopping only when a media scrum made it all but impossible for him to escape without comment.
A “disappointing” result, he said, but he was “proud” of the campaign. Was Boris Johnson to blame for the defeat? He declined to offer a yes or a no. So, too, did Edward Timpson, the Tory MP for nearby Eddisbury. “We have to reflect on what we have been told on the doorstep,” he told The Independent gloomily.
Vince Hunt, the Tory chair of Shropshire Council, was less diplomatic. “He [Boris] has to sit down and have a long hard think about his future,” he declared. It was an early call for a possible leadership change – but it seems probable many more will follow in the days to come.
Yet, perhaps, ultimately, it is too simplistic to see this as a simple referendum on the prime minister or the government or even the wide range of local issues – ambulance waiting times; poor transport links – that were continually raised on the doorstep during this campaign.
Perhaps this was about wider voting trends as Green Party candidate Duncan Kerr noted. Perhaps what happened here was something similar to the decimation of the old Red Wall in 2019.
“North Shropshire has been more or less a one-party state ,so to have that broken is marvellous,” he said, all smiles, despite a relatively poor poll showing himself. “It shows that politics is changing. People here – and across the country – have voted the same way for generations because of tradition or history or fear of the unknown. Now those days are gone. They have broken the habit of voting Conservative here and I think that will stay broken now.”