Apathy, anger and a PM ‘losing his grip’: how Tory woes, not local issues, decided the North Shropshire by-election

Despite Labour finishing in second place at the last general election in 2019, a consensus quickly emerged that it was the Lib Dems who were most likely to unseat the Tories in the seat.

With Labour focussed on the campaign in Old Bexley and Sidcup in November, the Lib Dems set up their campaign HQ in an ancient English manor house, owned by the descendants of the inventor of the postage stamp, Sir Rowland Hill.

One of the main advantages of the country house – aside from a plentiful supply of tea and cake from its owners – was that it had an electric vehicle charging point.

Eco-conscious Lib Dems had driven in from across the UK to support their party on the doorstep, only to find that North Shropshire has some of the worst infrastructure in the country for electric cars.

Some doorknockers were “left stranded”, said a source, adding ruefully that there was “sometimes a big queue of Lib Dem activists waiting to charge their car” at the manor house.

Activists designed a campaign based on their candidate, Helen Morgan, and her work in local politics – contrasting her with Mr Shastri-Hurst, a lawyer from Birmingham.

Campaigners thought that while the accusations of sleaze and impropriety at the heart of Government might lead to voters switching from the Tories, they also needed a reason to choose the Lib Dems, rather than ignoring the election altogether.

The Downing Street party was mentioned just once on leaflets delivered locally, while healthcare was referenced 140 times and farming 41 times.

Lib Dems turn on Labour

With days to go before election day, there was a tense stand-off between the two opposition contenders, who it is thought had quietly agreed early on that the Lib Dems would be the main challenger.

Both sides deny there was ever an agreement between them that the Lib Dems should take precedence.

But Labour sources said that in the final week, the party began ramping up its operation, bussing hundreds of activists in from across the country, and taking out a front and back page “wraparound” ad in the local newspaper.

Campaigners stressed that the young Labour candidate, 26-year-old Ben Wood, had been compared by voters on the doorstep to a young Tony Blair – who was just 29 when he fought his first election in Beaconsfield in 1982.

Mr Blair lost in 1982, but would go on to win in Sedgefield a year later.

Sensing the deal was off, Lib Dems responded in the last days of campaigning by making their favourite argument to voters in letters and leaflets: that the constituency was a “two horse race” between them and the Tories and that a Labour vote would be wasted.

Can Boris fix it?

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