The magnitude of the Conservative party’s defeat in North Shropshire can hardly be overstated, says Patrick Maguire in The Times. The Liberal Democrats won the by-election with a 34% swing – “the seventh biggest in history” – overturning a Tory majority of 22,949. It was a seat the Conservatives had held, in one form or another, since 1832. And this crushing defeat – all of it, every last bit of it – is “entirely the fault of Boris Johnson”. It was his disastrous effort to let incumbent MP Owen Paterson off the hook for lobbying that led to the by-election. Since then we’ve had the “fortnight-long saga of denials, leaks and inquiries” over illicit Christmas parties last year, and a huge Tory backbench rebellion over additional Covid measures. North Shropshire was a referendum on the PM’s “leadership and judgement” – and the voters made it crystal clear how they felt.
It’s hard to see “how this damage can be repaired”, says Fraser Nelson in The Spectator – “and very easy to see how it can be worsened”. Johnson’s calamitous decision to push through vaccine passports has “needlessly and perhaps irrevocably” alienated his base. And most of the MPs who backed him in the 2019 leadership election have given up faith. He won’t be walking the plank just yet – while the Tories are “Europe’s leading regicide specialists”, they always act strategically rather than in rage. But until they’ve found a replacement they can agree on, Johnson will be stuck in “political purgatory”.
What a difference seven months makes, says Katy Balls in The Guardian. After the local elections in May, Tories held up their win in Labour stronghold Hartlepool as proof that their 2019 election triumph was no blip – that it was “part of a wider political alignment that could see the prime minister outlast Margaret Thatcher”. That hypothesis now looks hopelessly optimistic. Traditional Conservative voters in North Shropshire complained that “they were being taken for granted by this government” – the “levelling up” agenda aimed at the “red wall” does little for them. And given that the constituency strongly voted to leave the EU, Brexit has clearly lost its potency on the campaign trail. Johnson or no Johnson, “the factors that helped the Tories cruise to victory in 2019 are going fast”.
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