The Liberal Democrat victory in North Shropshire is astonishing. It is the second stunning victory for the party in a year – Chesham & Amersham could be explained away by it being a Remainer seat and affected by NIMBY issues on house building and railways. No such excuses are on offer here, and the swing was even larger. In fact the last time there was such a large by-election swing between the parties (Christchurch in 1993) it was a prelude to the Tory meltdown in 1997. The Lib Dems have reestablished themselves as the protest party of choice in the Tory heartlands.
The first thing to say about this is that it is a vindication of the leadership of Sir Ed Davey. He has come in for much criticism, from inside and outside the party, since being elected last year. He wasn’t being radical enough, it was said, and in particular he should have spent more energy banging on about the failure of Brexit to deliver its promises. But that would have limited the party’s appeal to a rather well-off and well-educated elite, and probably failed even there with the party lacking wider credibility. He has been proved correct that the public mainly wants to move on. Instead he has revived the party’s focus on local issues, used to highlight the message that Westminster is out of touch. Importantly they were able to convince many Labour voters (the party was a comfortable second in 2019) that they had a better chance of winning in this seat – but the victory was founded mainly on scooping up doubting Conservative voters, and persuading others to stay at home..
Labour failed to do quite so well in the by-election two weeks previously in Bexley, in the London suburbs, in spite of the Lib Dems keeping their heads down there. We can’t read too much into the contrast, since evidently what proved fatal for the Conservatives in Shropshire were their evasions over Christmas parties in December 2020 in Downing Street and elsewhere – and that blew up largely after Bexley.
In fact the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, should feel vindicated too. He too has avoided stoking up told-you-so on Brexit; he has also avoided saying anything radical at all, notwithstanding his promises to Labour members before they selected him. Instead he has chosen to major on competence and “leadership”. In his early months he always stood in front of a backdrop with the word “leadership” in it. This was a failure at first. Criticism of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, seemed to be a Westminster village thing that didn’t “cut through” to the general public, in the village’s terminology. Not long ago I was urging Sir Keir to be be more radical by advocating reform of the House of Lords and the electoral system, allying himself with the Lib Dems and Greens, and capitalising on disillusion with the political system. That has proved unnecessary – it would always have been a risky strategy, but playing it safe can be paradoxically risky too in politics. But now the government’s credibility is shot in the nation at large, and voters are not as frightened of him as they were of his predecessor. That Lib Dem by-election victory in 1993 (in fact there were two that year, like this) heralded a Labour victory after all. Labour is now leading in the national opinion polls.
For the Conservatives this defeat points to two big problems. The first is Mr Johnson’s leadership, the subject of my previous blog. As I said then, I get very tired of the suggestion that Tories tolerate the incompetence because he is an election-winner. What on earth is the point of winning then? The public can and did suspend its judgement on Mr Johnson, but that happy period seems to be over. Many Tories hope that with a stronger team of advisers, his record can be turned around. Mr Johnson is certainly resilient. But is he able to manage his advisers? Personally I doubt it. The party would be better off changing leaders, and fast.
The second problem for the Conservatives is their discipline over covid policy. Covid policy scepticism is rife on the backbenches, and it shows. The most visible sign was the lack of mask-wearing in parliament, before the Omicron crisis put the wind up them. But there has been constant carping, leading both to a big backbench rebellion on the “Plan B” measures this week, and to confused messages from government ministers. Should or shouldn’t people reduce social contact in the run up to Christmas? Many on the right have disappeared down the rabbit-hole of extreme scepticism – stoked up in their social media bubbles, and egged on by increasingly vocal owners of hospitality and other affected businesses. This occasionally breaks the surface – such as with the complaint that the NHS has become the “National Covid Service” by excessively prioritising the disease, and as a result it is neglecting other conditions. I guess they want the covid patients to be left in the car park. While the sceptics make some pertinent criticism of policy – such as how we prioritise saving life over quality of life – their overall position descends quickly into incoherence. More to the point politically, it is an extreme position and incompatible with winning middle-ground voters. Covid is a deadly disease, if not for most people, then a significant minority, often including people we know. People are worried about it, and want to take precautions, and want to know that the NHS will be there for them if they or their loved ones fall seriously ill. They can’t see how that happens if they follow the wishes of the sceptics. As the FT’s Robert Shrimsley points out, Tory sceptics aren’t interested in learning to live with the virus, they just want things to go back to the way they were.
Now I am sure that most Conservative MPs are quite sensible on covid policy, but their sceptical colleagues are making the whole party look like nutters, and are clearly having an effect on government policy. They need to be stamped out just as the rump of Remainers were when Mr Johnson first took the leadership in 2019. But first that means Mr Johnson has to articulate a clear strategy for dealing with covid that takes on some of the points sceptics make – on finding a way to live with the virus, and on quality of life. Which brings this second problem back to the first.
For as long as the Conservatives fail to deal with their leadership and discipline issues, the strategies of Ed Davey and Keir Starmer look to be sound. Moreover their apparent pact to stay out of each other’s way in Tory seats, but not try any formal arrangement, also seems to be vindicated – and is another echo of that 1997 landslide. That still leaves two questions for them, and especially the Labour leader. What happens if the Conservatives change leader? And what do they do if they actually win power at the next election?
Eschewing radicalism will help persuade soft Tory voters to vote Labour or Lib Dem – but there must be a point to it all.