Politics is strange. Voters can change the fate of leaders overnight. It happened to former US President Donald Trump, and now UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson finds himself on shaky ground after only two years since he shattered Labour’s “red wall” of northern seats to secure the Conservative party’s biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 victory.
And Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out with discussions on a two-party democracy in the UK.
But this week, the Conservatives lost the North Shropshire seat they held for nearly 200 years to the Liberal Democrats by a large majority in a by-election blow to Johnson. Winner Helen Morgan, a strident Remainer, declared the "party is over" for the PM.
The appalling result follows a torrid week for Johnson, who has faced criticism over Downing Street parties and a rebellion by his own MPs over COVID measures. Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said the PM was on "last orders" and added, "One more strike and he's out."
The by-election is being seen as a referendum on Johnson’s performance. Although Johnson has an amazing ability to bounce back but this time there are many in the Tory party who are pondering on the possibility of a leadership election in the summer.
Johnson’s ability to win elections has now been put to question.
Will This Result Change the Image of the Lib Dems?
For the Lib Dems it looks like the beginning of a revival. Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said millions of people around the UK "have woken up this morning feeling that a bit of light has broken into the darkness."
The emotion is understandable. After all, in the 2016 referendum, this area voted strongly in favour of Brexit but now the pro-EU Lib Dems has taken the constituency. The Labour are a poor third, although it must be added there was a lot of tactical voting to keep the Tories out.
This is not the first such victory for the Lib Dems. In July it took a former Conservative stronghold since the general election, by seizing Chesham and Amersham, in Buckinghamshire, with a 25 percent swing in July.
By-elections cannot be glossed over easily as they have a momentum of their own to set trends. It cannot be forgotten that in 1997 “when Tony Blair (Labour) and Paddy Ashdown (Lib Dems) led their respective parties, tactical shifts of just a few percentage points cost the Conservatives about 30 seats they would otherwise have held,” noted Peter Kellner, political analyst and former president of YouGov.
In 2010, the Lib Dems were part of David Cameron’s (Conservative) government with Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister. Then in 2019, Lib Dems chose to support the Conservatives in order to keep Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) out but paid a huge price among its voter-base.
Now with a comeback of tactical voting can Keir Starmer, Labour leader and Ed Davy, Lib Dem leader recreate the magic of 1997? It is too early to predict, as both leaders have a lot of work to do within their respective parties.
According to Kellner: “Given the size of the mountain Labour must climb to achieve an overall majority – a lead of about 12 percent in the popular vote – a minority government may be the best real hope for Labour and the biggest threat to the Tories."
“Which gives us the paradox that the slump in Labour’s vote in North Shropshire should cheer Starmer and terrify Johnson,” he added.
After a long drought and electoral irrelevance, will this result change the image of the Lib Dems? That is what Ed Davey will be hoping. It’s their fourth by-election gain in five years and things have now started to look promising.
A Lot Going Wrong for Boris Johnson
On the other hand, Conservatives have only themselves to blame for this self-inflicted humiliation.
Johnson has taken “personal responsibility” for the result and so he should. In fact, this election happened because of him. The former Conservative MP Owen Paterson was due to receive a 30-day suspension from Parliament after a lobbying scandal, but Johnson tried to tear up the rule book to save him. Paterson quit in the subsequent furore.
Had Johnson followed the rules, this by-election could have been avoided.
A lot else has been going wrong for Johnson who faced a Tory rebellion of about 100 MPs in Parliament over his handling of the Omicron virus.
From the obvious sleaze and Partygate scandals to the PM's ramblings about Peppa Pig, tactical voting and the emergence of the Omicron strain, nothing has gone right for him of late. Also, farmers in the largely rural seat are said to be fed up with the lack of support from the government post-Brexit. There is also a sense that the 'Get Brexit Done' wave that swept Johnson to his historic 80-strong majority two years ago might have run its course.
Although there is unrest within the Conservative party, there is no immediate challenge to the PM’s leadership. But Johnson now has an uphill task. Whether Johnson goes or stays, there are fundamental challenges ahead in 2022.
In the latest Tory bombshell, Lord David Frost, the all important Brexit minister, has resigned, citing the “political direction of the government.”
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)