Voters on the streets of Oswestry have laid the blame for the Tories’ defeat in the heartland seat of North Shropshire squarely at the door of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
As the newly elected Liberal Democrats’ North Shropshire MP Helen Morgan carried out her first walkabout through the market town of Oswestry, which forms part of her new constituency, a female shopper spotted her, smiled and shouted: “We voted for you.”
Another man applauded while others simply stared bemused as Ms Morgan’s victory parade of 30 or so fresh-faced supporters carrying party signs stopped traffic and squeezed through the narrow streets, past busy Christmas market stalls.
Earlier, Ms Morgan, in a bright pink coat, used a yellow pin to pop a large blue balloon on the side of which was written “Boris’ bubble”, held by a grinning Tim Farron, the one-time Liberal Democrat leader.
The symbolism was clear – but voters on the streets seemed surprised by the sheer scale of Conservative Party’s defeat in a seat it had held with a near 23,000-vote majority.
The result in North Shropshire was the seventh biggest swing, at 34.2%, in a by-election since the Second World War
One Labour voter told the PA news agency he had thought the Tories would hold on “by 1,000 votes or so”.
The constituency has been Tory for nearly 200 years, but many of those happy to speak to reporters in Oswestry laid the blame for the defeat at the Prime Minister’s door, with one calling him “lazy” and another saying he behaved with “complete disregard”.
The result came at the end of a week in which Mr Johnson has been embroiled in allegations of Downing Street parties and a rebellion by his own MPs over Covid measures.
The by-election was triggered when former incumbent Owen Paterson stepped down after being found to have breached parliamentary lobbying rules.
Talking to reporters outside The Bailey Head pub, Ms Morgan said voters had been “moving towards” the Liberal Democrats, “even before the issue with the party, last week”.
She said local issues like concern over Covid-hit health services and a farming community which “feels taken for granted” had boosted her vote.
Ms Morgan said: “You can’t deny the impact of the party and the news that broke last week, but I think it was moving in our direction before then.”
But her new constituents said recent events which have engulfed the Prime Minister may have played a role.
Stephen Richardson, 33, who has lived in the area most of his life, applauded Ms Morgan as she was on her walkabout.
“It’s always been Conservative in Oswestry, so I think it’s interesting to see the Liberals, not Labour (winning),” he said.
Labour voter Robert Bound’s young daughter Lucinda, said: “I thought the Lib Dems were going to win.”
Turning to her father, she then added: “You thought the Conservatives were going to win.”
He replied: “I did think they would win, not by much of a margin, but I thought they’d win by 1,000 votes or so.
“I think there’s been so much bad publicity, and the start of a groundswell of opinion, because of the sleaze, parachuting in a candidate (Neil Shastri-Hurst) from Birmingham.
“A lot of different factors have come together.
“For the constituency, it’s a good change – whether it stays the same at the next election, who knows.”
He added that anecdotally he knew voters, including his 85-year-old mother who has supported Labour all her life, who had voted tactically for the Liberal Democrats, to force the Tories out.
However, one man, who declined to be named and was visiting the town’s market stalls but lives over the border in Wales, said he would have voted Tory.
“I would vote Tory, (I) always was Labour, but I think Tories have done the best job for the last few years,” he added.
Tim Turner, 56, from Oswestry, said of the result: “Obviously I am very pleased.”
Asked how he voted, he replied: “Oh, I wouldn’t say. It’s very difficult to choose who to vote for, but I am very pleased Boris lost.
“I think it’s Boris Johnson that’s lost the Conservative vote around here.”
Asked if there was any way back for the Prime Minister, he said: “Not really, I just think he’s lazy.”
“I don’t think they’re Conservative – there’s no Conservatives in the Conservative Party.”
“I thought it would be a very much reduced majority for the Tories, but I am very pleased the message has been sent,” said Tony Parnell, with his wife Jill Parnell.
“This leadership, I think, displays the worst in humanity, he (Boris Johnson) displays a complete disregard and no care for anybody other than himself,” he said.
“He doesn’t even care that he’s been caught out about the parties.
“All he wanted to be, in my opinion, was Prime Minister.”
However, another woman, who declined to be named, said of the Liberal Democrat win: “They won’t be there long.”