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Safe Tory seat up for grabs amid anger over parties, Peppa and a Birmingham barrister

Safe Tory seat up for grabs amid anger over parties, Peppa and a Birmingham barrister
Traditional blue voters consider shifting as sense grows party is taking area for granted. By Colin Drury in North Shropshire

At the Antiques Emporium in the North Shropshire town of Whitchurch, owner Paul Sample is recalling a conversation he had in a nearby pub back in 1988.

“We were talking politics and I was giving an opinion, as I like to,” the 75-year-old recalls. “And someone said to me ‘What do you know about the area? You’ve only lived here 10 years’.”

It is an anecdote which may just offer an insight into why Thursday’s by-election here is becoming increasingly intriguing – and why something momentous appears increasingly plausible.

While sleaze, Peppa Pig-gate and the ghosts of Christmas parties past are all haemorrhaging the Tories’ support in this traditional safe seat, it is the fact the party is attempting to parachute a barrister from Birmingham into the constituency that appears to be causing particular consternation.

The selection of Neil Shastri-Hurst has sparked such dismay that the Conservative deputy mayor of Market Drayton has resigned from the party, while, in the constituency’s shops and streets this week, voters repeatedly mention the candidate as a reason for turning off blue.

“It’s not parochialism to want an MP who understands the challenges in your area,” says one lifelong Tory supporter Andrew Powell, owner of Powell’s Pies in Whitchurch. “What does a lawyer from the country’s second-biggest city know of an agricultural place like this? They’re absolute poles apart. It’s like me – I’ve been a farm manager and then a pie-maker all my life. I don’t pretend I’d know anything about Sparkhill.”

How does it make him feel knowing that this is his Conservative option? “Like they’re taking me for granted.”

And his solution? “I’m not sure yet,” replies the 54-year-old. “But they do say by-elections are for giving bloody noses.”

Clockwise from top left: Hilary Wendt and Kim Fitzwarine-Smith; Ian Dutton, Paul Sample and Andrew Powell

On paper, North Shropshire is about as certain a Tory win as possible. The place is rural, relatively prosperous and has a population that is almost a decade older than the UK average. It voted Leave in 2015 and, at the 2019 general election, gave Owen Paterson – whose resignation amid a lobbying scandal caused this by-election – a near-23,000 majority. It has been blue for all but two years since 1832.

Yet, here on the ground in the constituency – a sprawling agricultural area incorporating the five towns of Oswestry, Wem, Whitchurch, Ellesmere and Market Drayton – the Tories are far from home and dry.

In a sort of reverse Red Wall, a discontented public appears to be asking why it keeps voting Conservative when the area (in their minds) sees so little return. As one Green Party campaigner, Hilary Wendt, notes: “Conservatism is deeply imbued here but there is a growing despondency with that.”

No levelling up cash has come here, and the region’s farmers feel overlooked by Brexit trade deals. A decade of cuts, meanwhile, have resulted in some of the country’s longest ambulance waiting times: only last week, an Oswestry woman, Sandra Francis, died at home after waiting 38 minutes for paramedics.

And Boris Johnson’s response to allegations a Christmas party was held in Downing Street last year have not helped his party’s standing here. Neither has the prime minister’s promise – made during a visit to the area last week – to look at dualling the area’s arterial A5. “They’ve been promising to dual it for 20 years,” as one Whitchurch resident notes. “They say it every election then forget it the next day.”

There is, in short, good reason for the Tories to be nervous about Thursday’s contest.

“People notice when these things mount up,” says Roy Aldcroft, the Conservative mayor of Market Drayton and a ward councillor with the Tory-led Shropshire Council. “We need to recognise we can’t be complacent just because this has always been [Conservative]. The way people think about politics has changed. People used to vote for a party because that’s how their family had always voted. But those days are gone. You have to work for your votes now, even in safe seats. Because if you don’t, you wake up one day and you’ve lost it.”

Neil Shastri-Hurst meets prime minister Boris Johnson

That is the hope of Ben Wood.

He’s the Labour challenger here, a 26-year-old local lad from Oswestry who meets The Independent straight from a hustings held in the town’s Bailey Head pub – the first place he ever had a pint, as it happens. “Home territory,” he notes.

He is, by profession, a political advisor in Westminster and, despite relatively tender years, wily enough to understand his local provenance offers a deep advantage. His key campaign themes – apart from constantly emphasising those roots – has been to highlight how the area’s services and infrastructure have been allowed to stagnate in recent years.

It’s a point he is making today on a bus journey between Market Drayton and Whitchurch.

Despite being just 12 miles apart, it takes almost two hours, via a change in Shrewsbury, to travel between these two towns on public transport. There is, astonishingly, almost no direct bus connections between any of the seat’s five market towns. “That lack of connection puts a limit on the prosperity they can achieve,” says Wood. “It puts a cap on the local economies because it reduces the level of interaction between them. Good bus routes would absolutely help them grow together.”

It is a message, he says, that is resonating on doorsteps.

Helen Morgan

Yet it is not just the Tories that stand between him and unlikely victory. It is the Liberal Democrats too.

Despite the party finishing third or fourth during every election bar one here since 1992, the party is selling itself – and the bookies appear to agree – as the main challenger on Thursday.

Why so? Because, says candidate Helen Morgan over coffee in Whitchurch, when Conservative voters switch, “they tend to switch to the Lib Dems”.

This is, she points out, exactly what happened in Chesham and Amersham in June, when her party over-turned a 16,000 Tory majority to win the seat.

The 46-year-old is a parish councillor in the village of Harmer Hill and, as it happens, has acute experience of how bad those ambulance waiting times are. Five years ago, while suffering with norovirus, she was left for 90 minutes inside one because no space was available in A&E. Improvements to the area’s NHS capacity are personal for her in a way that they cannot be for – yes – a barrister from Birmingham.

Can she really win, though? “We can give them the scare of their lives,” she says.

Nonetheless, the extent of the uphill battle faced is perhaps best highlighted at the bi-weekly Market Drayton Livestock Market.

This is one of the biggest animal auctions in the country. Hundreds of cows, pigs and sheep are sold here every Monday and Wednesday. Farmers, butchers and dealers travel from across Midlands and Wales to buy and sell.

And, when The Independent turns up to ask North Shropshire farmers here who they’ll be voting for, the answer is exclusively – albeit unenthusiastically – blue.

“I’ve voted [that way] all my life and I don’t suppose I’ll change now,” says Ian Dutton, a 79-year-old selling cattle.

What does he think of the sleaze, the potentially lockdown-breaking parties and a PM who often appears ill-acquainted with the truth? “I don’t like it,” he says. “They should be ashamed. I didn’t go shopping for months because of [coronavirus] and they’re throwing parties. Disgraceful.”

And yet? “I don’t suppose the other lot are any better. I feel safe with the Conservatives.”

Which perhaps brings us back, full circle, to Paul Sample back at his Antiques Emporium in Whitchurch. He’s been living in North Shropshire for 43 years now – surely enough time to qualify for offering an opinion.

Will the constituency do something momentous on Thursday and vote for something other than a Conservative? “Personally,” he says, “I’d like to see that happen but I think it’s wishful thinking.”