ANDREW NEIL: Hopping mad Tory voters wanted to send Boris a message

ANDREW NEIL: Hopping mad Tory voters wanted to send Boris a message he could not ignore. And boy, have they!

North Shropshire wasn’t a normal by-election. It was a referendum on Boris Johnson. A referendum the Prime Minister lost. Catastrophically.

The Great Winner — the Tory politician who could reach voters other Tories couldn’t, who was elected (twice!) as mayor of Labour-leaning London, who won the Brexit referendum against the odds, who consigned Jeremy Corbyn to the dustbin of history with a landslide victory over Labour two years ago — is suddenly the Great Loser.

The Tory leader who managed to turn a rock-solid 23,000 majority into an impressive Liberal Democrat lead of 6,000.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been warned he is in ‘last orders time’ after the Liberal Democrats overturned a massive Tory majority to win the North Shropshire by-election

And Boris managed it all by himself. This debacle is all his own work. The third biggest swing — 34 per cent — against the Tories in a by-election since World War II. 

Well done, that man. Even he admits he has to take ‘personal responsibility’ for the defeat.

I’ve seen many governments come a cropper over great policy issues — Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax, Tony Blair and Iraq, David Cameron and Brexit — but this is the first time I’ve ever witnessed a government brought low by unnecessary, self-inflicted nonsense.

It is also the underlying reason why so many Tories are so angry with the PM — angry enough for thousands of them to vote Lib Dem or stay at home on Thursday.

They knew they were not picking a government. But they wanted to send a message to Boris that he could not ignore.

There would never have been a by-election in the first place if Boris hadn’t listened to a bunch of Tory toffs who urged him over dinner in the snooty, all-male Garrick club to intervene to save their mate (and North Shropshire MP) Owen Paterson from the punishment he deserved — a 30-day suspension from Parliament — for lobbying on behalf of companies whose pay he was in.

But Boris thought it would be a great wheeze — the sort of jolly jape they used to get up to as students in the Oxford Union — to do their bidding and save one of their own.

North Shropshire by-election winner Helen Morgan of the Liberal Democrats, makes her acceptance speech at Shrewsbury Sports Centre on December 17

He was even prepared to undermine the whole edifice of Parliamentary standards and procedures to do it.

But this jolly jape backfired disastrously. In the face of resistance from MPs of all parties, Boris was forced into a humiliating retreat. Paterson was left with no alternative but to resign.

Just think. If Boris had stayed out of the Paterson imbroglio — which as PM he should have — and Paterson had taken his punishment on the chin, his suspension would be over and the good people of North Shropshire would have woken up yesterday morning in a safe Tory-held constituency with Paterson still their MP.

Instead, Boris woke up to the biggest crisis of his leadership.

The Paterson saga has played into festering concerns about Tory cronyism, sleaze, cover ups — above all about one rule for the Tory elite, another rule for the rest of us.

Stories of parties last year in Downing Street and Tory HQ when the country was in lockdown emerged and were embroidered.

The never-ending saga of who paid to refurbish the Prime Minister’s flat resurfaced.

Wallpapergate, partygate, more partygate — to each scandal Boris responded with his familiar mixture of bluster, dissembling and untruths.

Simply telling things straight did not seem to occur to him, even when an honest laying out of the facts could have dealt with the matter.

But then Boris has always used bluster and dissembling whenever he’s been in trouble.

Truth has often been a stranger as he sought to get out of a tight corner. And why not? Because it’s always worked in the past.

Helen Morgan and Tim Farron of the Liberal Demcrats speak to the media following victory in the North Shropshire by-election

Until now. Even Tory voters have now grown tired of his shtick. I’m not surprised. These are grim times.

The pandemic is heading into its third year. The country is awash with the latest variant.

A second Christmas in some sort of lockdown beckons. The economic recovery is stuttering.

Voters are not stupid. They know that governments across the world are struggling to cope with Covid.

They’re just looking for some quiet competence, a seriousness of purpose, a sense of direction to get us through the nightmare, politicians that can be trusted even if they don’t always get it right. In a word, leadership.

The lack of all of the above gave us this week’s result in North Shropshire. It is a watershed for the Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson’s support in the Tory Party has always been skin-deep. There is no Boris base on the backbenches or among activists in the country.

There is no Johnsonian core of beliefs around which Tories can gather, as there was with Thatcherism, because there is no Johnsonian ideology beyond opportunism. He has almost no friends to rally round him.

Truth be told, many Tories can’t stand him. But they backed him because he was a winner.

It’s unlikely Brexiteers would have won the 2016 referendum without him. From the depths of despair under Theresa May, he led the Tories to an 80-seat majority two years ago, consolidating his reputation as a winner.

Many Tory MPs, especially Red Wall Tories in the north, felt they owed their seats to him.

But if the overwhelming basis of your support is being a winner, it evaporates fast when you’re perceived as a loser, a liability. Which is what many Tories now see him as.

They haven’t given up on him entirely . . . yet. They know that a leadership challenge in the midst of a new wave of the pandemic would be Tory self-indulgence at its worst. They still harbour hopes that Boris can change.

That he will beef up his lamentable Downing Street operation with people of stature, authority and experience; and begin to act like a leader with the gravitas his position requires and the solemnity the times demand.

It isn’t just the continuing pandemic or the slowing economy. The world will be a dangerous place in 2022. President Putin has amassed 175,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.

This week Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told me the expectation is that Putin will invade.

China is mounting military ‘dress rehearsals’ for the invasion of Taiwan. U.S. and Israeli intelligence reckon Iran is only weeks away from the ability to build a nuclear bomb.

If ever there was a need for competence, focus, experience, authority and purpose — with all frippery banished — it is now.

Those who think Boris Johnson still has it in him to rise to the tasks at hand point to how he got a grip as mayor of London after a pretty bad start. Perhaps. But I’m not holding my breath.

I never really thought Mr Johnson was fit to be prime minister — though I did recognise he was a winner.

But I did harbour hopes he might grow into the job. After all, he is not stupid and being PM has been his life’s purpose.

There have been times during the Covid crisis when he’s shown some of the qualities required.

But more often it’s been the same old Boris, bumbling from pillar to post, hoping some threadbare jokes or comments about Peppa Pig can deflect from the trouble he’s in.

He ran out of road in North Shropshire. It’s not clear what better news in the months ahead could come to his rescue.

Even with a successful rollout of the booster jab, this pandemic is going to be with us for some time to come. It’s already slowing down the economy.

The first half of next year is likely to be marked by low growth and high inflation — what we used to call stagflation.

That would mean, in turn, a squeeze on living standards as even generous pay increases fail to keep pace with rising prices. When the cost of living takes centre-stage it is often fatal for governments.

The risk for Boris is clear. Suppose Labour’s new lead in the polls is consolidated in the months ahead. Assume the May local elections go badly for the Tories. Taken together these two developments would cement his new position as the Great Loser.

It would unnerve Tory MPs on small majorities who’d previously regarded him as the key to their success.

It would embolden those who’ve never liked him anyway. It would encourage those with a grievance against him.

In other words, it would open the door to a summer leadership contest. Expect the runners and riders — from Rishi Sunak to Liz Truss to Priti Patel — to start lining up from early in the new year.

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