Boris Johnson has made a surprise visit to North Shropshire in an apparent sign of Tory jitters about a Lib Dem challenge in what is usually a staunchly Conservative seat in a byelection on 16 December.
The prime minister met people having booster vaccinations at a chemist in Oswestry, the biggest town in the constituency, the day after the Conservatives held another safe seat, Old Bexley and Sidcup, with a much-reduced majority.
The Tories’ 2019 election majority of 19,000 in Bexley was cut to 4,478 in a vote sparked by the death of the longstanding MP James Brokenshire, with a 10.3% swing to Labour and signs that a number of usual Conservative voters may have decided to stay at home.
Johnson, who was wearing a mask, chatted to customers and watched as the Tory candidate in North Shropshire, Neil Shastri-Hurst, a doctor turned barrister, gave people booster jabs. However, the prime minister got the candidate’s name wrong.
Johnson said: “I think we’ve got a fantastic candidate, Dr Neil Shastri-Hughes, who I’ve just been seen contributing already to the life of the community by vaccinating people, he’s a doctor amongst his many other talents and what he’s also going to do is work very, very hard for the people of North Shropshire.” He later referred to the candidate as “Dr Neil”.
Tory strategists are believed to be worried about a possible shock in North Shropshire, where the byelection was called after the resignation of Owen Paterson, who was found to have repeatedly breached rules about lobbying.
A Conservative email sent to supporters after the Bexley result urged donations to be ploughed into North Shropshire, warning that the Liberal Democrats had a real chance of victory.
“The Lib Dems are pouring more and more resources into their campaign,” read the email. “And the only way we can win is to match their spending pound for pound.”
While the Conservatives remain favourites to win again in the largely Brexit-supporting seat, which returned Paterson in 2019 with a majority of nearly 23,000, the Lib Dems have emerged as strong second favourites, despite being beaten by Labour there in the last general election.
The Lib Dems are devoting considerable resources to the battle, having largely stood back in Bexley. While there is no pact, Labour has thus far taken a similarly low-key approach to campaigning in North Shropshire, with few campaigning visits by Labour MPs or ministers.
This informal approach mirrors what happened in last July’s Chesham and Amersham byelection, where the Lib Dems overturned a previous 16,000-strong Conservative majority to take the seat, helped by a collapse in the Labour and Green votes.
As well as the enduring controversy over Paterson’s lobbying, and Johnson’s botched attempt to save the former minister from punishment by trying to unilaterally rewrite the disciplinary system for MPs, the Conservatives also face a challenge in North Shropshire from Reform UK, formerly the Brexit party.
In Bexley the Reform UK leader, Richard Tice, finished third with nearly 1,500 votes. In North Shropshire the party is fielding Kirsty Walmsley, from a well-known local political family, whose father was the Conservative leader of Shropshire council.
Lib Dem canvassers in North Shropshire say that while much of the campaign is based on local issues, there has been some anger from traditional Tory supporters about Paterson and the conduct of Johnson, including complaints about his recent, rambling speech to the CBI conference, featuring a long section about Peppa Pig.
There are also reports that some voters are unhappy with the Tories’ decision to spurn local candidates to replace Paterson and instead choose Shastri-Hurst, who lives in Birmingham.