North Shropshire by-election: who could win Owen Paterson’s seat?
Liberal Democrat polling shows party is ‘neck and neck’ with Conservatives
Tories are bracing themselves for the loss of ultra-safe seat North Shropshire after weeks of damaging headlines have wounded the party’s prospects in the area.
Constituents of the West Midlands seat are set to elect a new MP today, almost six weeks after disgraced Conservative MP Owen Paterson resigned following a parliamentary lobbying scandal. At the last general election, the former minister won almost 63% of the vote in the historically safe seat, beating Labour by nearly 23,000 votes.
As the polls opened this morning, campaigners were calling the constituency “too close to call” as others said a Tory defeat would be an “absolute disaster” for the prime minister, who just days ago faced the biggest backbench rebellion of his premiership over plans to introduce tougher Covid measures, said The Guardian.
Open. Every issue.
The by-election is a “coin toss” between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives said Ed Davey last night on the eve of the contest. The Liberal Democrat leader claimed that “lifelong Conservative voters” were switching their votes to the Liberal Democrats because they are “tired of being taken for granted by Boris Johnson”, reported The Independent.
And the Conservative candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst tried to quell suggestions that recent headlines over sleaze allegations, Downing Street Christmas parties and tougher Covid measures were making an impact on doorsteps.
The Conservative hopeful, a barrister and former doctor, told The Times that locals were “predominantly” concerned with local issues such as ambulance response times and rural broadband speeds, but conceded that there was “a real mix” of reactions to Boris Johnson after a difficult two weeks for the prime minister.
Neil Shastri-Hurst, Conservatives
The candidate representing the Tory party is Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst. According to his profile on the website of law firm Kings Chambers, Shastri-Hurst is qualified in medicine and law, and “spent a number of years” as a medical officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Ben Wood, Labour
Labour put forward Ben Wood, from Oswestry in Shropshire, as its candidate. Wood began his “working life in a local hardware shop”, according to the BBC, and has promised to put forward “a new plan with fresh ideas” for the constituency.
Helen Morgan, Liberal Democrats
Morgan stood for the Liberal Democrats in the 2019 election and is a chartered accountant who lives in Harmer Hill, Shropshire.
Duncan Kerr, Green Party
A member of Shropshire Council, Kerr stood for the Green Party in both the 2015 and 2017 general elections.
Kirsty Walmsley, Reform UK
The first hopeful to officially declare their candidacy in the contest was Kirsty Walmsley, who is standing for Reform UK, formerly the Brexit Party.
Walmsley “became the UK’s youngest councillor when she was elected onto the now-defunct Oswestry Borough Council at the age of 21”, said the Shropshire Star. She has since “worked in Parliament as a caseworker for three MPs”. Walmsley has said that she would not have challenged Paterson, as he is a “man of integrity”.
Andrea Allen, UKIP
A UKIP parish councillor and chair of Whitchurch Town Twinning Association, Allen is a former modern languages teacher.
Russell Dean, The Party Party
Russell Dean – not to be confused with the Tory MP Dean Russell – currently lives in Monaco but has vowed to relocate back to the UK if elected.
The 55-year old yacht brokerage consultant is standing on a platform of “anti-sleaze and corruption” and has said that his party’s unusual name is intended to help achieve his goal of “attracting young people into politics and encouraging them to engage”, the Shropshire Star reported.
Martin Daubney, The Reclaim Party
Martin Daubney represented the West Midlands in the European Parliament between 2019 and 2020 while a member of the Brexit Party.
Liberal Democrat internal polling, seen by Politico, suggests that the party is now “neck and neck” with the Conservatives, with one source “claiming the Tory vote has collapsed”, setting the scene for a “Shropshire earthquake” come polling day.
The Liberal Democrats and Labour have been “marshalling their forces to maximise damage to the ruling Conservatives” in what appears to be an unofficial informal pact between the two parties, said the Financial Times.
And Liberal Democrat sources have begun whispering about the possibility of an upset, with one source telling Politico that “there is a real prospect” the Tories could lose the seat in a further blow to Boris Johnson’s credibility.
The party’s canvassers are “urging Labour supporters to vote Lib Dem tactically to defeat the Tory candidate”, the site added, with Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi getting in on the act when she told Times Radio: “Let’s face it, Labour are never going to win North Shropshire. The Lib Dems do have an opportunity to do so.”
“The conclusion that the Lib Dems are now favourites is shared by Tory MPs who have visited the seat”, Politico said, with one stating their belief that their party is set to lose.
Lib Dem candidate Morgan told The Times that her “sense is that turnout won’t be that great and that there are quite a lot of demotivated Conservatives”, adding: “Local people really do think they want somebody who is embedded in their community.
New contenders Reform UK, led by Richard Tice, formerly of the Brexit Party, split the vote in Old Bexley and Sidcup earlier this month, suggested The Telegraph, and Conservative MPs have told the paper that “the vibes coming back” from North Shropshire are “not good”.
Could it be that the Conservatives are “facing a new Ukip, and an ensuing return to the electoral agonies of a split on the right?”, asked Mark Wallace on the i news site.
“Tice is now confidently predicting that he will cause further trouble for Johnson in North Shropshire next week”, said Wallace, and it’s not hard to see why Conservatives might be watching the slow surge of support for the Reform Party with “furrowed brow”.
“Not long ago, a surging Ukip regularly scored double figures in by-elections. Nigel Farage only gained one seat, but he secured enough of the vote to help Labour and Lib Dem candidates cling on in dozens of close contests.”
The Conservative campaign may also be further hampered by the defection of two North Shropshire councillors to different parties just days before the by-election, reported the BBC.
Deputy Mayor of Market Drayton, Mark Whittle, said he defected to Reform UK because he could not back a Conservative candidate who was not local.
Conservative pick Neil Shastri-Hurst comes from Birmingham but has promised his home will be “here in North Shropshire” should he be elected.
Whittle described his defection as “the most difficult decision I have ever made" and said it had come after “a great deal of soul searching”.
“I’m faced with no choice… how can I possibly back a candidate from Birmingham who has zero knowledge of North Shropshire and the challenges our community faces,” he said. “The Conservatives should have selected locally rather than be pressured into supporting someone with no prior interest or knowledge of the area.”
Former Tory councillor Anthony Allen has defected to Reclaim, founded by actor Laurence Fox last year, becoming the party’s first elected official.