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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Just A Few Hundred Votes Could Decide The Tories' Fate In North Shropshire

5 min read

Conservative and Liberal Democrat activists campaigning in North Shropshire believe there could be just a few hundred votes between the two parties at Thursday's by-election.

Boris Johnson is fighting to cling onto the seat, where the Tories have a 23,000 majority, after a by-election was triggered by the resignation of ex-Conservative MP Owen Paterson over his role in the lobbying scandal. 

The rural seat in the West Midlands has always voted Conservative, but after a tumultuous few weeks in Downing Street, where Johnson has angered Conservative MPs over allegations of lying to the electoral commission and reports of Christmas parties at Number 10 during the late 2020 lockdown, the vote is being viewed by many as a referendum on Johnson's credibility as leader. 

One senior Conservative MP said the reaction from backbench MPs would be "volcanic" if the party lost the seat. Multiple opinion polls have already shown significant drops in support for both Johnson and the Conservatives.

Figures in both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives who PoliticsHome met on the campaign trail this week believe the result is on a knife-edge. Liberal Democrats hope enough Labour and Green voters will lend their support to them to defeat Tory candidate, Neil Shastri-Hurst.

"There have been a lot of things over the last two years that people have dismissed as Westminster bubble stories, but this isn't," former Liberal Democrat leader and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale Tim Farron told PoliticsHome on Monday. 

Farron has been campaigning in the contituency for Lib Dem candidate Helen Morgan, a local parish councillor who also runs a business in the region. He said the recent controversies involving the Prime Minister had come up frequently on the doorstep. 

"This is a patch like mine, where the average age of the electorate is a little bit older than the national average, and there's a higher number here who spent Christmas alone, or saw grandma through the window of the nursing home," he continued.

"The one rule for us, another for them, alongside a general sense of being taken for granted, is really very powerful." 

With 5,643 votes in the 2019 election, the Lib Dems were the third biggest party in the constituency behind Labour, who took 12,495 votes. Farron stressed that a victory for his party would only be possible if constituents who usually support Labour and Greens vote tactically for Morgan.

"The Tories will hold this seat if Labour and Green voters vote Labour and Green," he said. 

"But if they generously lend us their vote, like that gentleman and his family are doing, then we can nick this, and it'd be a very famous victory."

Farron was referring Mr Vickers, from Wem, who said both him and his family were voting for the Liberal Democrats in order to unseat the Conservatives, despite being lifelong Labour supporters.

"I've voted Labour all of my life but I'm voting for Helen this time around as it'd be great to wipe the smile off their faces," he said from his doorstep.

The party led by Ed Davey is also hoping that enough disgruntled Tory voters switch to the Liberal Democrats to help Morgan deliver a major blow to the Johnson's under-pressure leadership.

Mrs Thomas, a voluntary care worker, told PoliticsHome she voted for the Conservatives at the 2019 general election, in which Johnson won a 80-seat majority, but was considering voting for Morgan on Thursday because of lack of support for the local social care provision.

"Adult social care is a big thing for me at the moment" she said.

"The Wem carers group that I'm involved in has never had to pay for anything before, and we are a lovely little group, but Shropshire Council just doesn't have any money for social care."

Local Lib Dem activists are concerned, however, that while many former Conservative voters who disapprove of the government may stay at home, not enough will come out to make an active protest against the party and back Morgan. 

There is a strong fear among Conservative MPs that the party will lose on Thursday, but one MP who is based in the region was confident that the party was "looking okay" and would just about hold the seat. 

They told PoliticsHome that a high number of postal votes were submitted before the Downing Street party scandal exploded into the national headlines last week, sparing the party some of the backlash at the ballot box.

A spokesperson for Shastri-Hurst said neither the Tory candidate nor campaigners were available to speak to PoliticsHome when we made requests to meet with them while visiting the area.

Even if the Conservatives are able to hold the seat, whether they're able to do so with the substantial majority they've previously enjoyed appears to be in major doubt. 

A source involved in the Conservative campaign said it was a "hugely competitive election". 

A senior Lib Dem source stressed that even if the Tories held onto North Shropshire, a narrow victory would still be a damaging result for the Prime Minister, who is already under immense pressure from Conservative backbenchers over his snowballing set of scandals. 

"It’s an enormous challenge, and even if we don’t quite make it, you are going to have some very nervous backbenchers," they told PoliticsHome.

"Look how hard we've made them work in a seat where they have a 23,000 majority." 

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