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“Boris Johnson, the party’s over”

The Liberal Democrats’ upset victory in the North Shropshire by-election, a seat the Tories held for nearly two centuries, deals a huge blow to the prime minister and is a stark indictment of a political system that has become a “nightly soap opera of calamity and chaos”.

Newly elected Liberal Democrat MP Helen Morgan bursts 'Boris' bubble' held by colleague Tim Farron following her victory in the North Shropshire by-election. Photo: Jacob King/PA Wire/PA Images.

Boris Johnson’s bleak mid-winter just got decidedly bleaker. And as he contemplates his party’s shellacking in one of the safest Tory seats in Britain, he might reflect ruefully that he brought it all upon himself by “crashing the car” in the Owen Paterson affair. 

His clumsy efforts to rewrite parliamentary rules to shield Paterson after he was suspended for breaching lobbying rules spectacularly backfired, leading to Paterson’s resignation. That triggered last night’s election, and has whipped up the kind of backroom whispering that will certainly not herald good tidings of cheer for a prime minister who’s in the top job principally, some might say solely, because he’s supposed to be a vote-winner. 

And what’s the point of a vote winner if they are not winning votes?

Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan is, though. There was a 34% swing in North Shropshire, a seat where the Tories had a majority of nearly 23,000 in 2019. It’s a calamity because this largely rural, strongly pro-Brexit region should be Boris Johnson’s natural heartland. 

In her victory speech in Shrewsbury, Morgan made it very personal.

“Tonight the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people. They’ve said loudly and clearly, ‘Boris Johnson, the party is over’. Your government, run on lies and bluster, will be held accountable. It will be scrutinised, it will be challenged and it can and will be defeated,” she said.

“Our country is crying out for leadership. Mr. Johnson, you are no leader. Many of your predecessors took office because they believed in a sense of national service, that they were duty bound to do what they believed was right for our country, to represent all of us even if we disagreed with them. Mr Johnson this is not how you operate. Too often it is all about you and never about us,” she said. 

Morgan won by a margin of nearly 6,000. Thousands of life-long Conservative voters had, she said, turned away from their party because they were “dismayed by Boris Johnson’s lack of decency and fed up with being taken for granted”. They no longer wanted politics to be a “nightly soap opera of calamity and chaos”.

And as soap operas go, this Christmas special has been a cracker. There was the lockdown party-not-party at Downing Street, the leaking of the video of Johnson’s staff giggling over the party-not-party, Allegra Stratton’s tearful resignation, more party allegations, and then a Tory revolt over new Covid restrictions. This soap has so much going on that we’ve nearly forgotten the Peppa Pig episode, the flat refurbishment sequence, and the MP’s second jobs storyline. It’s hard to keep up. 

But keep up the voters of North Shropshire did and they delivered their verdict. It’s not the first blow to the Tories. In June, the Lib Dems also took the Chesham and Amersham seat off the Conservatives, with a 25% swing in that by-election. It may be too early to talk about tides turning, but the sea is definitely getting choppier for Boris Johnson. 

Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said the prime minister was on “last orders”, telling the BBC, “one more strike and he’s out”.

On the plus side, there’s unlikely to be another non-party in Downing Street tonight.