The Liberal Democrats have won a stunning victory in the North Shropshire byelection, taking what had previously been a safe Conservative seat by nearly 6,000 votes, capping a disastrous few weeks for Boris Johnson.
Helen Morgan, the Lib Dem candidate, took 17,957 votes, ahead of the Conservatives’ Neil Shastri-Hurst, on 12,032, a majority of 5,925. Labour’s Ben Wood was third, with 3,686 votes.
The byelection was called after the former environment secretary Owen Paterson resigned in the wake of a botched attempt by Downing Street to save him from punishment for a serious breach of lobbying rules by rewriting the disciplinary system for MPs, which set off a string of damaging stories about other Tory MPs’ second jobs.
While the byelection was fought amid an atmosphere of damaging claims for Johnson and his government over allegations of lockdown-breaking Downing Street parties and a major Tory rebellion over Covid rules, at the start of the campaign a win for the Lib Dems – who finished third in the 2019 election with just 10% of the vote – was seen as unlikely.
Taking a seat which saw a near-23,000 Tory majority in 2019 involved a swing to the Lib Dems even greater than the 25% seen last June when they dramatically won the Chesham and Amersham byelection.
North Shropshire was seen as an even greater challenge for the party, given it is a largely rural and strongly pro-Brexit constituency, one which has been Tory for all but two of the past 189 years, from 1904 to 1906.
More than two hours before the result, the Lib Dems were already saying they would “win comfortably”, calling the byelection “an amazing night for the Liberal Democrats and a disaster for Boris Johnson”.
Turnout was 46.3%, closer to the 52% seen in Chesham & Amersham rather than the 33% in the byelection in Old Bexley and Sidcup earlier this month, where the Tories held the seat with a reduced majority.
The result will cause significant jitters among Conservatives, and caps as terrible few weeks for Johnson, who has been battered by a mass rebellion by his MPs over Covid restrictions, as well as revelations about allegedly lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.
It will also raise questions about the Tories’ choice of an outsider to be their candidate. Shastri-Hurst is a barrister from Birmingham, something which prompted annoyance among some voters.
Christine Jardine, Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West, who was at the count, told Sky News that the apparent win for the party’s candidate, Helen Morgan, showed that local Tory voters were “tired of being taken for granted”. She added: “They are tired of having a government that shows them no respect. For Boris, the party is over.”
As soon as the byelection was called, the Lib Dems sought to present themselves as the only party capable of beating the Conservatives, and poured enormous resources into the area.
Labour’s Wood, campaigned hard but received notably less support from his party HQ.
The byelection was seen as notably difficult to predict given both the short timetable and the number of candidates, totally 14.