You win some, you lose some. And for governments that have been in office for over a decade, when it comes to midterm by-elections, more often than not; you lose some. Why, then, does the Tory thrashing in North Shropshire matter?
There are three reasons.
One, this never needed to happen. Tory MPs are still smarting from the humiliation of having been marched to the top of the hill and immediately back down again over the Owen Patterson affair. Now, as a direct result of the PM’s calamitous misjudgement on that scandal, the Conservative Party has lost one of its safest seats. If Johnson had simply done nothing about Paterson’s disgrace then the most likely outcome would have been that the former DEFRA Secretary would be approaching the end of his suspension with little media attention and the very slim possibility of a recall ballot having made it across the line.
Two, North Shropshire voted by 60% for Brexit. They just elected an MP from the most anti-Brexit mainstream party available. This matters. The Tory coalition was fundamentally reformed in 2019 – with Leave seats posh and poor coalescing behind the Conservative Party in defiance either of their historic political allegiances or their suspicion about the economically interventionist instincts of Johnson. If Brexit is no longer enough then the Tory Party is left electorally exposed on all fronts. A lot of Tory MPs are looking, fretfully, over their shoulders this morning.
Three, Boris Johnson. That’s it. His relationship with his parliamentary party is a marriage of convenience rather than one of mutual passion. They elect him as their leader, he provides the votes that keep them where they are. He is Evita Peron to their grey ranks of Middle-Aged Argentine colonels. If the shine has come off, there are plenty of Tory MPs (on all fronts) who would relish the opportunity to throw him into the Atlantic and be done with him.
So yes, sitting governments lose mid-term by-elections. But Boris Johnson was already in trouble with his party and this result goes to the very heart of his own political misjudgements and mismanagement. All of this comes at a time when the Labour front bench has begun to look, and sound, less… well, less weird. Suddenly they are credible as a future government and those with long memories will recall that the mid-90s were characterised by Lib Dem by-election victories and Labour polling leads. The familiarity will be frightening shire horses.
Make no mistake, the Prime Minister is in real trouble this morning. It takes just 55 letters to Graham Brady to prompt a confidence vote; there will be dozens of MPs contemplating writing to the Chair of the ‘22 as they send their begging letters to Father Christmas over the holidays.