Misfortune piles on misfortune in the context of Britain’s constitutional and electoral crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion by a fairly large section of Conservative MPs over the “Covid pass”, the British Prime Minister has suffered yet another major setback with Friday’s defeat in a by-election in the “ultra-safe” seat of North Shropshire, one that the Tories had held for two centuries.
The victory of the Liberal Democrat candidate, Helen Morgan, and the defeat of the Conservatives has been rated as one of the greatest psephological swings in modern times. The 23,000- vote majority that the ruling party had won in 2019 has been reduced to irrelevance.
In his immediate reaction, Mr Johnson has said that he realized the “frustration” felt by voters over what he described as “a constant litany of stuff about politics and politicians”. He did not refer directly to the criticism that he faces on several fronts, including reports that his staff had held parties on Christmas Day last year and the lavish refurbishment of his residence when the country was under a Covid-19 lockdown.
The by-election was occasioned by the resignation in November of Owen Paterson, who had been the MP since 1997. It bears recall that the parliamentary commissioner for standards had concluded that he had breached lobbying rules and recommended is suspension. Paterson has denied the charge, however. Arguably, the rebellion by 100 Conservative MPs against the vaccine passports has encouraged more people to vote for the Liberal Democrats.
The voters of North Shropshire are said to be “unhappy with what was going on in London”. And considering that North Shropshire had voted “Leave” in the referendum on Brexit, voters were generally unhappy with the “delivery mechanism” for the pullout. The Conservative MP, Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst, a barrister and surgeon of Indian origin, was parachuted in from Birmingham without local knowledge of the area. “Over half the people in the town could not pronounce his name. He was the totally wrong person for Shropshire,” was the prognosis of the defeat by Mark Drayton, the Deputy Mayor.
The plot thickens with the announcement by Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the 1992 committee of Tory backbenchers, that he will accept letters demanding a vote of no-confidence against Mr Johnson “by e-mail”. Fifteen per cent of Tory MPs could trigger a vote. “One more strike and he’s out,” was the rather tongue-in-cheek barb from the Conservative MP, Roger Gale.
In a word Mr Johnson will have to countenance a major test of his leadership, showcased by the firm opposition by 100 Tory MPs to Covid regulations, followed by an electoral defeat. The ruling party, equally, has its back to the wall. No Prime Minister can be confident with the outlook in Britain, rated as the fountainhead of libertarian democracy. Clearly the numbers of those fed up with Mr Johnson’s quixotic ways are growing.