With a newborn baby in Downing Street, Boris Johnson must be enduring some disturbed nights.
But if he was up with a bottle when the North Shropshire by-election came in just after 4am he might be forgiven for thinking it was a nightmare.
Although there had been a widespread mood of despair in Conservative circles for weeks, some had still harboured hopes that the party’s enormous majority might allow it to scrape home or at least come a close second.
In the event, the scale of the loss was far greater than even pessimists had feared. The Lib Dems achieved a 34 percentage point swing that wiped out Owen Paterson’s 23,000 advantage at the 2019 election and deliver victory by nearly 6,000 votes.
The stunning turnaround came despite the Tories fielding a candidate, Neil Shastri-Hurst, with good credentials who was regarded as having performed respectably.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems put up Helen Morgan, a strident Remainer, to fight a seat that voted enthusiastically for Brexit in 2016. She was also dogged by stories about her previous social media output, including claims she compared Mr Johnson to Hitler and appearing to liken the experience of Channel migrants to Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz.
So what did go wrong for the Conservatives?
Well, it seems almost everything did, from the obvious sleaze and Partygate scandals to the PM’s ramblings about Peppa Pig, tactical voting and the emergence of the Omicron strain.
The Lib Dems insisted that voters were ‘so fed up’ with Mr Johnson’s ‘incompetence and behaviour’ that they were open to being won over.
And a senior Tory MP deeply involved in the North Shropshire campaign told MailOnline that the outcome was down to a ‘perfect storm’ of local and national pressures.
They pointed out the cause of the by-election was far from ideal, having been triggered by the resignation of Owen Paterson after Boris Johnson mounted an abortive attempt to save him from punishment for lobbying.
The Lib Dems mounted an ‘effective tactical voting campaign’, which was helped by Labour ‘recognising they were not in it’.
‘Daily national negative stories are going to have an impact,’ the MP said. ‘There was general frustration at the national level compounded by frustration about Covid.
‘The resurgence of Covid coming in the week before the by-election made people feel they wanted to vent their anger.’
The senior Conservative said that people should be wary about drawing dramatic conclusions from the outcome.
‘I think we need to take it seriously but I don’t think you can extrapolate from it. The Conservatives won Hartlepool in a by-election seven months ago. Who would have put any money on that?’ the MP said.
Another senior Tory MP argued that the Lib Dems have finally been able to return to ‘chameleon’ tactics from before they went into coalition – adjusting their policy pitch dramatically depending on local factors and soaking up protest votes.
The Lib Dems put up Helen Morgan (pictured left today), a strident Remainer, to fight a seat that voted enthusiastically for Brexit in 2016
Lib Dems have suggested that Mr Johnson’s toe-curling speech to the CBI, where he lost his place in his notes before going on a long digression about Peppa Pig World and comparing himself to Moses, had a surprising amount of cut-through during the campaign
Tories pointed out the cause of the by-election was far from ideal, having been triggered by the resignation of Owen Paterson after Boris Johnson mounted an abortive attempt to save him from punishment for lobbying
Mr Johnson admitted he is ‘responsible for everything the government does’ as he was asked during a brutal interview today whether he was personally to blame for the ‘earthquake’ result in North Shropshire
New Lib Dem MP is a Remainer who likened Boris Johnson to Hitler
New Lib Dem MP Helen Morgan is an ardent Remainer who once compared Boris Johnson to Hitler in a rant about Brexit.
She made the astonishing comments – that were caught on camera – as she addressed a pro-EU rally in Shrewsbury in August 2019.
At the time the Government was embroiled in a row over its attempts to prorogue Parliament to circumvent efforts to thwart Mr Johnson’s Brexit plans.
The Cambridge-educated accountant, who was raised and still lives and works locally with her husband, told the crowd that the plans would set a ‘dangerous precedent’, adding: ‘It’s what Hitler did in 1933… this is a shameless power grab by a right-wing elite.’
At the time Ms Morgan made the comments about Mr Johnson she was the Lib Dem candidate running against Mr Paterson at the 2019 general election.
She would go on to finish a distant third behind the former environment secretary and the Labour candidate.
Earlier this month she apologised after The Mail on Sunday uncovered social media posts appearing to liken the experience of Channel migrants to Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz.
She wrote on Twitter about her son’s experience of reading The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, in which the son of the camp commandant befriends a Jewish boy on the other side of the fence.
Ms Morgan said in September 2020: ‘He commented that the Nazis were only able to do such terrible things because they didn’t think their victims were people. He’s 11.
‘On Twitter this morning, there are people talking about cancelling their RNLI donations because they have picked up ‘illegals’.
‘The language used every day in this country – by the Government, press and people with thousands of followers on social media – it’s nothing short of chilling.
‘We have travelled too far down this road. We urgently need to turn back.’
In the same thread, she liked a tweet by an unidentified user who claimed: ‘Having visited Auschwitz concentration camp in the recent past.
‘It really brings home man’s inhumanity to man. Now on a daily basis the language and actions of the Conservative Party make me more and more concerned about the direction they are taking the UK and its people.’
‘We know what the Lib Dems are like. They shoved up a Remainer in a 66 per cent Leave-voting constituency, and all they did is retract anything she had said that was pro-EU,’ the MP said.
‘If you are in a seat that has voted Tory for the last 200 years you aren’t going to vote Labour as your protest. They have dropped 12 (percentage points) which is not exactly a vote of confidence.
‘The Lib Dems have got a formidable by-election machine.’
The MP voiced hope that a ‘people aren’t going to risk a protest at a general election’, but also cautioned: ‘The Lib Dems are pretty clever. They will put a team in there now to try to make sure they hold on. The whole thing will depend on whether the Tories start to turn things around.’
Lib Dems have suggested that Mr Johnson’s toe-curling speech to the CBI, where he lost his place in his notes before going on a long digression about Peppa Pig World and comparing himself to Moses, had a surprising amount of cut-through during the campaign.
Farmers in the largely rural seat were said to be fed up with the lack of support from the government post-Brexit.
There is also a sense that the ‘Get Brexit Done’ tidal wave that swept Mr Johnson to his historic 80-strong majority two years ago might have run its course.
One Conservative MP for a key northern seat warned that Mr Johnson had to recognise the public have ‘moved on’ from Brexit.
‘It shows Brexit is no longer a relevant conversation in politics,’ they told MailOnline. ‘If Boris and co think it is, and that it will save them – it won’t.
‘This was Brexit heartland and they voted for a candidate who was a publicly vociferous campaigner for a second referendum.
‘Boris told everyone Brexit was done. So they’ve moved on. Has he?’
People out and about in North Shropshire today were unrepentant about abandoning the Tories.
Richard Wilson, 76, from Oswestry, said: ‘I have voted Conservative in the past – not this time. Liberal Democrats for me.
‘This time, I was deliberately voting against the government – especially after the sleaze/Owen Paterson scandal that happened towards the end of his tenure.
‘Then, after that, they ask for our votes? No this time.
‘The whole government is smeared with dishonesty, people have not accepted this time around.
Duncan Borrowman, 61, Landlord of The Bailey Head Pub from Oswestry said there were a ‘combination of factors’ behind his support for the Lib Dems.
‘It is not only Boris but his whole cabinet and the antics they have gotten up to,’ he said.
‘The party and the quiz are something that will last long in the memory of people. As a publican, my pub was closed, then the whole outdoor eating, curfews – the whole time Downing Street were laughing at us.
‘The government, Boris and the cabinet have to be told it was wrong – maybe this election win for the Lib Dems is a way of showing them.’
Election guru Prof John Curtice highlighted that something seems to have shifted dramatically for the Tories since the Partygate row erupted.
‘In a sense, two weeks ago, nobody would have seen this coming. Two weeks ago, yes the Conservatives were in trouble – their position in the polls was down to neck-and-neck and they lost 13 points in the Old Bexley by-election,’ he said.
‘But this was not a constituency first of all that at all looked like promising territory for the Liberal Democrats – it voted 60 per cent to Leave – very, very different from Chesham and Amersham… and secondly while the Conservative position had weakened it hadn’t weakened that much.’
Veteran backbencher RogerGale – a long-standing critic of the PM – was in no doubt about the cause of the problems.
‘The electorate wanted to send a very clear message to Downing Street that they were dissatisfied with the management of this Government,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘I think this has to be seen as a referendum on the Prime Minister’s performance and I think that the Prime Minister is now in ‘last orders’ time.
Thatcherite former minister John Redwood opened another front by suggesting the eye-watering tax burden was responsible for the slumping popularity.
‘Will the Chancellor now admit his high tax economic slowdown is wrong?’ he tweeted. ‘Will the Environment Secretary back British farming instead of trying to stop us growing our own food? Time to listen to Conservatives.’
But Mr Johnson himself had other ideas – moaning that the media were asking too many questions about sleaze and alleged lockdown breaches in Downing Street.
Repeatedly pressed by the Sky News reporter on what was going wrong and how he was going to turn things around, Mr Johnson said: ‘I think that people are frustrated and I understand that… Basically what’s been going wrong… is that in the last few weeks some things have been going very well, but what the people have been hearing… is just a constant litany of stuff about politics and politicians and stuff that isn’t about them and isn’t about the things that we can do to make life better.
‘And so to that extent, of course, you’re right – and I think the job of the Government is to make people like you… interested in the booster rollout and in skills, and in housing, and in everything else that we’re doing.
‘And unfortunately, you’re totally right, we haven’t been able to get the focus on those issues.’
Challenged again on what he was doing wrong, Mr Johnson snapped: ‘If I may say respectfully, Omicron… is a very serious threat to us now.’
Pushed on how he will avoid repeats of damaging rows such as over Downing Street parties and the funding of refurbishing his grace-and-favour flat, a visible irritated Mr Johnson said: ‘Those questions are exactly the kind of questions about politics and politicians and all those kind of things, the running of government, that I’m going to have to fix of course.
‘But the real issue people want to focus on is what we’re doing to sort out the NHS, the investment we are putting in to get us through a very tough time and what we are doing to tackle the pandemic.’
In a stunning turnaround Helen Morgan was elected the party’s 13th MP with a majority of almost 6,000 to heap more pressure on the Prime Minister and send shockwaves through the Conservatives.
Source: Daily Mail