Lib Dems are hoping for a spectacular upset in North Shropshire constituency that has long been a Conservative stronghold
If Boris Johnson’s decision to join the campaign trail in North Shropshire on Friday was a sign of Conservative jitters before the upcoming byelection in the constituency, then Chris Pierce is just the sort of voter to exemplify such anxieties.
“I feel taken for granted,” complained the self-described former Tory supporter, standing outside his house in a neat, modern cul-de-sac on the edge of Wem, a compact market town just north of Shrewsbury.
“You could put a blue rosette on a straw bale and it would be elected in North Shropshire,” said Pierce, 50. “Owen Paterson would be parachuted somewhere into Wem High Street once every four years, photo taken, then quickly out before any local people realised he was there.”
Pierce would, he said, vote Liberal Democrat on 16 December, to the evident delight of Helen Morgan, the party’s candidate, nearing the end of another long canvassing session. But, Pierce added ruefully, he still expected “the guy from Birmingham” – a disparaging reference to the distinctly less-than-local Tory candidate Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst – to win.
The odds do remain very much in favour of Shastri-Hurst, who if elected would become the latest in a near 200-year line of local Tory MPs, one broken just once, between 1904 and 1906.
But something unusual is happening in North Shropshire, and not just because the byelection was prompted by Paterson resigning in the wake of Johnson’s disastrous attempt to save him from punishment following a serious breach of lobbying rules.
One very obvious anomaly is that the Conservatives, even in a mid-term slump, are concerned about holding a strongly rural pro-Brexit seat, one that returned Paterson with a majority of almost 23,000 in the 2019 general election.
Another is the way the Lib Dems have become the main challengers in no small part by loudly and repeatedly telling people that this is the case, arguing that strong local election results in May matter more than 2019’s distant third place, behind Labour.
Labour’s young and energetic candidate, Ben Wood, vehemently disputes this narrative and talks up positive canvassing data. However, central party officials concede they are devoting few resources to the fight, and so far no senior shadow ministers have been spotted there.
Similarly, while the Greens hold 12 of 18 council seats in Oswestry, the constituency’s biggest town, the party privately concedes it does not expect to do especially well.
The Lib Dems’ hopes of anti-Conservative sentiment coalescing around Morgan, an accountant and local parish councillor, are of course significantly boosted by the party’s astonishing win in June’s Chesham and Amersham byelection, overturning a 16,000 Conservative majority as the Labour and Green votes collapsed.
While Lib Dem activists stress North Shropshire is notably shorter of the sort of internationalist, pro-remain “soft” Tories who helped deliver last summer’s victory, they argue both constituencies share a wider sense of disenchantment with Johnson and his government.
“When they talk sleaze, a lot of voters have a real tone of derision,” one activist said. “And it’s not, ‘A plague on all your houses.’ This is very much about the Tories. But perhaps the most toxic thing is picking a candidate from Birmingham. It’s like they don’t care.”
As Morgan and her campaign team canvass in Wem, while the majority of concerns are distinctly local, including access to GPs and slow ambulance response times, these are often expressed amid a wider sense that the Conservatives have neglected the area.
“The response we’re getting on the doorstep is people are fed up of being ignored, and they’re ready to send a message to say that,” Morgan said. “We’re definitely going to give the Conservatives a scare, and I think we do have an actual chance.”
The Lib Dems coming anywhere close to taking the seat would, certainly, spook many Tory MPs. Even the more likely outcome – a reasonably secure Conservative hold, but with many of the party’s usual voters staying at home – could be alarming.
Tory HQ appears to be hoping that a brief, slightly below-the-radar campaign – Guardian requests to speak to Shastri-Hurst or anyone from his team were ignored – will get them home.
The Lib Dems, in contrast, have sent party leader Ed Davey to campaign in the constituency three times already, with a succession of other MPs and peers on hand to persuade voters and deliver endless leaflets featuring one of the party’s trademark bar charts, this one explaining why only they can defeat the Conservatives.
“It’s like carpet bombing,” one opponent said, with a mixture of admiration and annoyance. “It really is win at all costs.”
Could it work? After Chesham and Amersham, no one would rule it out. But even Lib Dems privately agree it is a tough ask. “Winning Chesham and Amersham was like climbing a mountain,” one senior party official said. “But taking North Shropshire? It would be the Everest of byelection victories.”