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By Bishop of Leeds
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Shock Tory By-Election Loss Shows They Can No Longer Rely On Pro-Brexit Vote, Top Pollster Says

3 min read

The Conservative party's stunning defeat in Leave-voting North Shropshire to the pro-Remain Lib Dems could be a sign they can no longer rely anti-EU sentiment to win votes, leading pollster Sir John Curtice has said.

The Prime Minister is reeling from a shock loss in the historically safe Conservative seat after a by-election was triggered by the recent resignation of ex-Tory MP Owen Paterson over a breach of parliamentary lobbying rules. The party went from having a comfortable 23,000 majority to losing out to the Liberal Democrats by nearly 6,000 votes.

The rural seat in the West Midlands voted for Helen Morgan to be its new MP, with a swing of 34% towards the Liberal Democrats, having previously only ever elected Conservatives.

Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the pro-Remain Lib Dems have made re-joining the EU a central policy, perhaps making them an unnatural choice for a region that voted for Leave by an estimated 59.85%. 

Curtice said the North Shropshire result showed that how a constituency voted in 2016 would be much less of a factor in future elections, unlike in 2019 when Johnson's promise to deliver the UK's exit from the bloc was a highly effective in Leave-voting seats.

"Certainly, what it shows is that crying ‘get Brexit done’ is not a sufficient condition for keeping Leave voters on board," the leading pollster told PolitcsHome.

He explained that many Leave voters who supported the Conservatives for the first time at the 2019 general election did so largely because of Johnson's promise to "Get Brexit Done," but importantly do not have a deep loyalty to the Tory party.

"If you take all polls since party-gate," Curtice said, referring to a string of scandals involving Christmas gatherings in Downing Street during lockdown, "the Conservative vote is down by 13% across the country compared with 2019, and down 20% among Leave voters".

Curtice has observed Conservative support "going up and down" for some time now, particularly among Leave voters. 

"The Leave end of the Tory coalition consists of a huge proportion of first-time Tory voters, the fragile bit of the coalition,” he explained. 

He added that the Downing Street party scandal, which has dominated the by-election in North Shropshire, plus other recent controversies involving the Prime Minister, are highly-damaging and make it even harder for Johnson to reap any reward from Brexit messaging.

“No political ideology is going to defend you if the public begins to have doubts about your personal ethics," Curtice said.

A Conservative MP in the region agreed with Curtice, but told PoliticsHome that while there was "genuine anger" over Brexit in 2019, it would be "irrelevant" by the next general election, which is due to take place in 2024.

"A mid-term election is much more a reflection of the performance of the government," they said.

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