Boris Johnson faces North Shropshire by-election test in wake of Covid rebellion

Ballot is a key test for UK prime minister after months of upsets

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will face his first electoral test since a series of scandals cropped up when voters in North Shropshire head to the polls on Thursday. Mr Johnson's party has held the area for pretty much 200 years but tactical voting could allow another party's candidate to win. Reuters

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set for his first electoral test after a series of scandals when voters in the North Shropshire constituency head to the ballot box on Thursday.

Mr Johnson has taken a battering from allegations of sleaze, the alleged lockdown-breaking Christmas party at Downing Street and his biggest Tory rebellion over his Plan B Covid measures in a parliamentary vote on Tuesday. These factors could prove that what happens in Westminster can have powerful repercussions in North Shropshire.

As Mr Johnson picks up the pieces, all eyes are now on the seat left absent by the resignation of former Tory MP Owen Paterson. He stepped down after the government’s failed attempt to block his suspension for breaking parliamentary rules, prompting allegations of sleaze in Westminster.

Traditionally one of the safest Conservative seats in Britain, a change could be on the cards for the sprawling agricultural constituency this week.

On Tuesday Mr Johnson’s plan to introduce Covid passes in large indoor venues was opposed by 126 MPs who voted against the measure. According to parliament’s division list, 98 Tories rebelled, but ringleader Steve Baker said he believed there was another MP from the ruling party who defied the whip.

The vote still passed comfortably, because Labour supported the government.

Former chief whip Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group, which is made up of Conservative MPs sceptical about the government’s restrictions, said Mr Johnson “should act differently” now.

“Instead of the prime minister making a late-night address on Sunday and scaring many people witless, a better thing to do would have been to come to the House of Commons on Monday to set out in detail the advice that he’s received, the things that he thinks needs to happen as a result, and allow members of parliament to ask questions and then for him to answer them,” he said.

“So what I’m calling for is for him to change how he operates.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets staff during a visit to a pharmacy in the North Shropshire constituency on December 3. He has since kept away from the area amid the fallout from the Christmas party saga and a Tory rebellion over his Plan B Covid measures. PA

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a senior Conservative politician, said a contentious leadership challenge has “got to be on the cards” for the prime minister in the new year.

Helen Morgan, the Lib Dems’ candidate, said farmers in North Shropshire have been “taken for granted by a government that has failed to listen to the real issues they face” and vowed to fight for them. She said the vote would be a “golden opportunity” to show the government that voters will no longer stand by while being ignored.

The Conservative candidate, Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst, has vowed to use his experience as an NHS surgeon to improve local health services and work with the government to secure investment for the area. But local party members suggest the Birmingham native knows little about the area.

Ben Wood, who is standing in the by-election for Labour, echoed the Lib Dems’ claim that local voters feel they have been “taken for granted” by the Tories.

He called the alleged lockdown-breaking Christmas party held in Downing Street a “game changer” and said it had led to “a lot of anger” in the constituency.

Roy Aldcroft, the Conservative mayor of Market Drayton and a ward member of the Tory-led Shropshire council, said there may be a lower turnout of voters on Thursday because people have become “disillusioned with politics and with the prime minister”.

‘We will vote tactically to beat the Tories’

Fourteen names will be listed on the ballot sheet when voters head to the polls and the Liberal Democrats are the bookies’ favourite to win the seat, which the Tories have held for close to 200 years.

After visiting the area on December 3, Boris Johnson has chosen to stay away amid the fallout from the Christmas party affair.

Rob McBride, a nature conservationist known as The Tree Hunter, said he is planning to vote tactically to strip the Tories of the seat they hold with a near-23,000 majority.

In the past he has voted mostly for the Green Party or Labour but said this time around kicking Mr Johnson’s party out is more important than party loyalties.

The business owner, who runs a tourist attraction in Ellesmere, North Shropshire, told The National he is backing the Liberal Democrats because “they’re the only party that can beat the Tories here”.

Asked if he thought the by-election could spell the end for the Conservatives’ rule in the area, he replied: “I do. For the first time ever I am going to vote for a party that I would not normally vote for. I’m going to vote tactically.

“The Tories have got too many privately educated people and we need more people who live in the real world. When you look at their backgrounds, how can they understand us? We are struggling."

Other voters could employ the same strategy by supporting the Lib Dems to strip the Conservative Party of the seat, with the movement gaining momentum on Twitter.

Mr McBride, a Shropshire native who voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, also took issue with the Conservative government’s approach to immigration, which has also caused a stir among party members.

Having recently led a tree-planting mission with 50 asylum seekers, many from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, he believes Britain should be prioritising genuine refugees over economic migrants.

“What we need in this country is less obsession with economic growth and more with growth of contentedness and happiness,” he said.

Updated: December 15th 2021, 2:12 PM