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13th Dec 2021

North Shropshire, like the rest of England, will always vote Boris Johnson

Ava Evans

“You can pin a blue rosette on a goat and North Shropshire will vote for it”.

In Westminster, Boris Johnson’s hold on power is looking increasingly tenuous. But 180 miles north: allegations of illegal Christmas parties, a brief encounter with Peppa Pig and failing efforts to curb the spread of Omicron are having little cut-through with voters ahead of this week’s by-election.

The bookies have made the Liberal Democrats favourites to win this Thursday and Labour have reportedly pulled back on campaigning, to give them a fair shot at toppling the Tories. Yet, on the ground, this message isn’t having the impact you might expect.

“He’s just had a baby,” says Tim, 72 – horrified at my suggestion he’d vote anything other than Tory next week. “The party happened last year, it’s ridiculous to bring all that up.’”

Deborah, 45 agrees: “It was a year ago now, it’s no good running the government down”, she says. “He’s trying his best.” 

“I don’t know who would step into his shoes”, says Mary. “He’s had a bad run, but I don’t think there’s anybody else strong enough to run the country.”

The North Shropshire seat was vacated last month by disgraced former Tory MP Owen Paterson, the man who broke parliamentary rules by pocketing about £500,000 from lobbying and whom Johnson wanted to let off without punishment. 

Mary isn’t bothered about her previous MP’s rule-breaking: “He was always friendly around the town,” she says.

Despite his friendships with those at the top of government, Paterson failed to secure any of the government’s Levelling Up fund for his austerity-hit constituency. 

Oswestry, where I am due to meet the Labour candidate, is North Shropshire’s third biggest town. Outside of farming, there is little industry. Ambulance wait times far exceed national targets, there are two new food banks and some local bank branches in neighbouring towns have shut their doors. 

Voters might seem apathetic, but Tory HQ are showing some signs of concern.

The Prime Minister paid a visit of support to the constituency earlier in the week, promising a shiny new railway station if the Tories are voted back in. The candidate has also pledged to fill potholes around the county, a vote-winning policy for the Tories at the last general election.

Following a disastrous week in Westminster, the Tory candidate for North Shropshire, Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst, has apparently been instructed to avoid talking to the press. 

The former British Army medical officer-turned barrister was parachuted in from his usual home in Birmingham, in hopes he might help the Tories avoid a political catastrophe. If Johnson loses a “true-blue” safe-seat, it could trigger a domino effect of uncertainty amongst his back-benches. 

One Tory minister has reportedly described the situation as a “cl********k”, another said a loss could be the “beginning of the end”.

I meet Labour candidate Ben Wood in the market square. He tells me the solution is a Labour Government, “then we can bring back the train station and the ambulance station”. Which arguably is wishful, and not strategic thinking.

Nationally, Labour seems to be doing pretty well. The latest Opinium poll for the Observer put Labour nine points ahead of the Tories. The opposition are polling an astounding 43 points, previously unseen throughout Sir Keir’s reign. If these results came to fruition at the next general election, around 117 Conservative MPs would lose their seats, including Boris Johnson. 

However, despite success in the polls, the by-election has been largely snubbed by Labour’s Westminster office except for a visit from Labour Chair Anneliese Dodds. The visit went completely unnoticed, so much so, The Guardian has since reported no members of the Shadow front-bench have visited.

Six days out from the vote, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has so-far failed to schedule a visit to the constituency.

“I haven’t spoken to Keir,” Labour candidate Ben Wood tells me. 

Wood is a promising candidate. Born and bred locally, he has a clear passion for the area and a drive to secure better services for the constituents. 

On national issues, Wood repeats the same lacklustre lines funnelled out by the leaders office: “Sleaze is definitely cutting through but you can’t call them [Tories] liars and hope voters will flock to us”, he says. 

“I’m not a Trot”, Wood tells me. “I think Keir Starmer is the best Labour leader in my lifetime”. 

Which begs the question: where is Sir Keir? And does his absence suggest that Labour aren’t confident they can make an impact here? Or perhaps, it’s a subtle signal that Labour voters should flock to the Lib Dems. 

The Liberal Democrats have set up camp an hour outside of Oswestry, in a country estate near the town of Wem. Having interviewed the Labour candidate outside of a Poundland, pulling up to “Soulton Hall” certainly sets a different tone. 

The Liberal Democrat candidate and bookie’s favourite to steal the swing, Helen Morgan, has put Tory sleaze at the heart of her campaign. “How dare they?” read one leaflet, another printed: “Tories face nightmare by-election surrounded by accusations of sleaze”. 

I’m excited to meet Morgan – a local councillor. The Tory-sleaze scandal was kicked off in the North Shropshire constituency, Paterson’s resignation made the area the homestead of this decade’s corruption scandal. The birthplace of Johnson’s potential demise should be fertile ground for an opposition candidate. 

Morgan seems fatigued by a day of interviews when we meet. Her tone of voice is more headteacher and less that of a candidate on the brink of smashing through a safe seat and overturning a 23,000 vote majority. “I can’t be sure it’s cutting through on the doorstep,” she says in relation to Tory sleaze.

Morgan made national headlines last week for a tweet from 2020 in which she likened immigration tactics used by Home Secretary Priti Patel to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

Morgan deleted the tweet and apologised profusely. She seems keen to put it in the past when we meet, so much so that she refuses to be drawn on the topic of immigration entirely.

When I ask her thoughts on the Nationality and Borders Bill passed the day before by Priti Patel, she claims to have no knowledge of it and tells me she is fighting a “local campaign”. Which is an honourable sentiment but seems at odds with the strategy decided on by Lib Dem HQ when they were printing her campaign leaflets. 

Back in Wem town centre, I search for young voters who could be vital in the constituency securing a swing away from the Tories next week. 

“My parents are voting Tory”, 19-year-old Becky tells me. “I missed the deadline to register to vote, but there doesn’t seem to be much point anyway”.

Later, 18-year-old Ben tells me he also won’t be voting. He’s secured a place at a London university for September and is “counting down the days”.

For a moment there it seemed like North Shropshire, a constituency that’s been Tory since its conception, might swing.

Hammering home the Tory sleaze rhetoric might be doing opposition parties favour nationally, but in this Tory safe seat, there seems to be little cut-through.

It’s far more likely growing support for the Lib Dem and Labour candidates will do little more than split the vote, reducing the Tories’ majority – but delivering another Johnson victory. 

In a fitting conclusion an ex-pat from Oswestry, Ross, 32 tells me: “You can pin a blue rosette on a goat and North Shropshire will vote for it”.

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