North Shropshire by-election winner Helen Morgan of the Liberal Democrats, makes her acceptance speech. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Artillery Row

A Shropshire shock for Boris

The by-election result was one of rage rather than politics

According to Bede, a few years previously he was Bretwalda, Master of Britain, master of all he surveyed, having defeated his major enemies in the North East. He had raised his standard near Hadrian’s wall, and had taken on all comers and had won.

There were rumblings of course, there are always rumblings, but he was determined to show those who did not share his faith who was in charge.

This morning it is Boris who must feel nailed to a tree in the Marches

So he took his army to the borders of Wales and there did battle with the locals, whose disparate tribes came together under one banner to challenge him.

The Battle of Maserfield that took place in 642 at Oswaldestroe, or what the Welsh call Croesoswallt, destroyed King Oswald’s pretensions to be the overlord of the country. So much so that the translations of the Old English and Welsh refer to Oswald’s Tree, or Oswalds Cross. The story goes that after his defeat he was cut to pieces and his remains were nailed to a tree by the Pagan army in a mock crucifixion. His arm was stolen by a raven from that tree and, where it fell, a spring broached the sod. Its waters still flow.

This morning it is Boris who must feel nailed to a tree in the Marches. Following the catastrophic result in North Shropshire even his fabled vim must be soft. Sir Graham Brady will now be expecting a few more Christmas cards on his mantleshelf as deeply worried backbenchers survey the battlefield. As one Conservative MP messaged me this morning, “It’s all kicking off in my party now”.

One has to credit the Liberal Democrats for what was a magnificently run campaign. They had their oven ready candidate in Helen Morgan who had stood for them in the constituency in previous elections.

Earlier they had managed to get an unspoken deal with Labour that they would not fight the Bexley and Sidcup by-election only a fortnight ago, for a quid pro-quo from Labour… The Lib Dems kept their word and won a derisory 3 per cent in South East London. But by then they had already moved activists into Shropshire. They had already put out three flyers across parts of the patch before nominations had closed and they had, as they traditionally do when they smell blood, grabbed the agenda early. At times they had upwards of 500 activists out, penetrating the most isolated of cottage with their curdling tales.

Bar charts went up with demonstrably false claims about how they were the only voice to give Boris a black eye. Their claim was that in Shropshire they are the second party, but in North Shropshire the reality was very different. In May this year they could not find candidates in many wards and even lost a seat in Wem to the Tories. Other than a couple of Independents (who had been Tories previously) only the Greens had made a serious challenge, taking the two Oswestry seats and winning 12 of the 18 seats on the towns own council.

And yet the Lib Dems managed to persuade pretty much everybody — from Will Hutton to Martin Fletcher of the Times and the Guardian’s editorial pages — that this was an election which was up for grabs, all must join the great coalition. At that point I spoke to the political editor of the local paper, the Shropshire Star, who suggested that despite Owen Patterson’s misdeeds, if he had run as an independent he would have had a good chance of winning against a non local Tory, so popular was he in the constituency.

Even so it was neck and neck. Like in Bexley it looked as if apathy would win the day. Neil Shastri-Hirst, who must have thought he had been given a job for life when, with his impeccable military/medical CV, he had been parachuted into Shropshire from Birmingham was still comfortably in the lead, and though the Lib Dems were snapping at his heels and working hard all he had to do was not make a fool of himself. Of course, it wasn’t him. With Boris around it is never about anybody else.

This is not a vote of endorsement for Sir Ed Davey’s brand of politics, but it is a howl against Boris’s

The sight of Allegra Stratton laughing at us turned apathy into anger. Then the continuous vision of lockdown partying, of dither, of U-turn, of lockdown gaslighting, of inflation up and economy stifled, of social care in the doldrums, but mostly of them laughing at us stoked ire.  The expected tiny turnout (Bexley only managed 33 per cent) which would have saved the Tories, disappeared; it was 45 per cent. Anger, not apathy, now stalked the mosses and meres of the county. Platoons of orange placards, like ancient standards, flourished in villages that had never seen a Liberal candidate.

Early this week I talked to an old woman walking a dog in a very pretty village. She had refused the offer of an interview from the BBC — 20 years in the Met murder squad, 15 in the Red Caps including Northern Ireland.

“I’ve come here to get away from it all, and haven’t I made the right decision? That is when you lot have left us alone again.”

The result is a shock, but it isn’t seismic. This is not a vote of endorsement for Sir Ed Davey’s brand of politics, but it is a howl against Boris’s.

What is clear is that this is another self inflicted wound. If Boris, instead of rolling out of the Garrick club after a dinner with Lord Moore, demanding that his party defend Paterson, he had invited him in for a cup of tea, and promises of post suspension clemency, then by now, Patterson would have served his 30 day suspension and would be back on the green benches, chastened, and far more loyal.

Right now, if you look closely though the cordite-fog and mere-topping mist, you can make him out. Sliced in pieces and nailed to a tree.

But the winners should not be too complacent either. In 1904 the local Tory MP inherited his father’s title as Lord Harlech, in the subsequent by-election Liberals flocked to Oswestry, including one Winston Churchill who had recently joined the party. The local Liberal candidate caused a huge upset defeating William Bridgeman who had been shipped in from elsewhere. Two years later in the General election of 1906,  the result was overturned and Bridgeman won the seat back for the Tories which he continued to hold for almost 25 years.

Oswald’s Tree became Oswestry, and the site of Oswald’s crucifixion became a point of pilgrimage. The King may have died, but his cult lived on. The Tories, panicked though they are right now, need to get a grip. This is bad, very bad, but it is a result of almost inchoate rage. Understand that. Deal with it, depose Boris if you must. But just stop losing the plot.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover