By Nikhita Nachiappan
Last month, Helen Morgan took her seat as the Liberal Democrat MP for North Shropshire, following her by-election win on 16th December 2021. North Shropshire was a textbook Conservative stronghold, having returned a Tory MP at every election since 1832. North Shropshire voted to ‘Leave’ in the 2016 EU referendum, and has a higher percentage of senior managerial workers and retired occupants than the national average – factors which point to the inevitability of Conservative representation. However, considering the circumstances surrounding the by-election, the Conservatives had every reason to worry about the Liberal Democrat campaign; with their emphasis on the sleaze – or even corruption – of the current government, the Liberal Democrats delivered a seismic win with a 34% swing of nearly 6000 votes more than the Conservatives. Whilst this result is a definitive message of opposition to Conservative governance, does North Shropshire signal the beginning of the end of Johnson’s premiership? I have faith that the electorate has taken note of the ever-growing list of scandals, and believe that Johnson’s government will not exist in its current capacity by the next general election.
The by-election was a result of the “Paterson Affair”, a phrase which refers to the parliamentary standards commission’s investigation into Owen Paterson, the previous MP for North Shropshire. The commission ruled for a thirty-day suspension for Paterson as a result of breaching “lobbying rules” on behalf of Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods. Some Conservative MPs tried to assist Paterson by “arguing that the investigation into the matter by the standards commissioner had serious flaws.” They voted against measures which monitored politicians’ conduct, resulting in the veto of Paterson’s suspension and a proposal for the establishment of a new procedure. But eventually, the government performed a U-turn, which led to Paterson’s resignation from Parliament.
Though voters usually focus on local issues at the ballot box, I believe the “Paterson Affair” demonstrates anger towards a Tory tendency to cover each others’ backs instead of addressing the concerns of those they represent. Votes are taken for granted and government complacency shapes deceitful policy practice. In her victory speech, Morgan highlighted “‘questionable donations’ to refurbish the PM’s Downing Street flat and parties in Number 10 during lockdown.” Such scandals have reinforced the belief that Johnson’s government is caught up in saving face and is therefore incapable of effectively leading the country. This fact was vital to the Liberal Democrat campaign, as many backbench Tory MPs, including Christian Wakeford, have realised that the Conservative-majority government is now on shaky grounds when looking forward to the next election.
As the wider electorate has not yet been given an opportunity to give its verdict over Johnson’s actions in the last year, it is difficult to note whether North Shropshire is a protest in an unusual circumstance or a pronounced, permanent change of public opinion. The Liberal Democrats have a history of performing incredibly well at by-elections, but this may not translate to support at a general election. Nevertheless, their victory in North Shropshire, alongside Chesham and Amersham does seem to represent a turning tide prompted by scandal. A much larger revolt against Johnson’s regime is beginning, led by ‘true blue’ constituencies and perhaps some Northern Conservative seats too.
Johnson’s government is at risk because the “Paterson Affair” is not a unique event. The Conservatives appear to use any means to avoid scrutiny and accountability. The “Paterson Affair” aimed to discredit the parliamentary standards commission, and the government has taken similar aim at other independent monitoring bodies, including the attempt to appoint ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as head of Ofcom (the independent regulator for telecommunications). Hence, at a general election, voters may be able to look beyond the locality of the North Shropshire result and vote in favour of the correct functioning of democracy. In a democracy, it is vital that the voters have confidence in their public institutions. When the current government consistently undermines the authority of institutions, and supports measures which weaken or demonstrate undue influence over independent institutions’ practice as evidenced by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, there is a dangerous decline in standards of democracy. There have been threats to judicial review, limits on the right to protest and a whole host of other measures which mark the erosion of vital elements of democratic checks and balances. The government is almost trying to cement an untouchable position.
Johnson leads the scandal-infused government by example, as he constantly contributes to the electorate’s range of evidence on Conservative corruption. Who funded the Downing Street flat refurbishment? Who paid for his accommodation during a 10-day holiday to Mustique? Johnson’s repeated refusal to answer these questions has fuelled the notion that his government operates under a system of deception. Eventually, it was revealed that Tory donor Lord Brownlow had funded the flat refurbishment and the Goldsmith family owns the villa in Mustique. Last week, texts between Johnson and Brownlow were released by Johnson’s ethics adviser, Lord Geidt. In the texts, Johnson said the flat was “a bit of a tip” and in return for funding from Lord Brownlow promised to consider plans for a “Great Exhibition 2.0”, which was discussed a few months later by the Culture Secretary of the time Oliver Dowden and Royal Albert Hall representatives. Johnson seems unable to govern with transparency and spins situations to suit his friends and supporters instead of the public interest. The British electorate has endured this juvenile approach for long enough.
Has snowballing ‘corruption’ destabilised Johnson’s government? Only time will tell. Perhaps the Conservative party will take matters into their own hands, with recent Downing Street party revelations suggesting there is no need to wait for a ‘blue wall’ revolt when Tory MPs are already considering a leadership challenge. Support for Johnson’s premiership is wearing thin – with the veteran Conservative MP David Davis calling for the Prime Minister to go in response to the Downing Street Party revelations in last week’s Prime Minister’s Question. His premiership has become a distraction from vital issue areas, including the cost of living crisis and pandemic recovery in general, and his continuation in office is clearly at the expense of the national interest.