“Crushing”. “Disastrous”. “Shock defeat”. Last week’s Lib Dem by-election victory in North Shropshire — achieving an enormous swing of 34%, the seventh largest in by-election history — was described in invariably hyperbolic language that was more about the Conservatives’ defeat than their success.
It has intensified the pressure on the Prime Minister at a time when he is already under immense political strain over Covid restrictions, backbench rebellions, the Downing Street Christmas parties and more.
A lot of Tory voters wanted to give Boris Johnson a bloody nose over recent events. Many also decided to just stay home. But before Neil Shastri-Hurst had even stepped foot in North Shropshire, the Lib Dems had framed the election as a contest between a community champion and an unknown Conservative lawyer from Birmingham. Then, the Allegra Stratton video emerged. And the news kept snowballing. The mood on the doorsteps changed – one staffer reported that people became more willing to openly back the Lib Dems by putting up posters and stake boards. Voters even started approaching campaigners in the street to tell them they were backing them. That’s what happens in a campaign when you have all the momentum and emotions are running high. After a few days, the topic of the video began to come up routinely on the doors. Then came the “shock defeat”.
Should we believe any of the hype about a resurgent Lib Dem force?
Party insiders are busy asking themselves the same question.
For many, North Shropshire proves that the toxicity of Remain is finally over, having just won a seat that voted by a clear majority to leave the EU in 2016.
And more and more Labour voters seem to have forgiven the Lib Dems for the Coalition.
That’s two big political albatrosses whose impact seems to be wearing off.
The Lib Dems think they can once again win on rural issues and build their credibility with Conservative-leaning voters who feel alienated by sleaze and scandal, who are angered by the ongoing problems caused by Brexit and who feel that Boris Johnson fundamentally doesn’t share their values. Ex-heartlands previously written off, like the South West, are open to re-examination.
But they are also being realistic. The Lib Dems are very good at by-elections and throwing all their resources at them. In a general election, they won’t be able to do that. And all the ingredients that combined to deliver them this victory —a news cycle dominated by the parties controversy, favourable media attention they can exploit, a virtually silent Labour leadership —won’t be there.
This realism extends to the role of Labour. Recent results validate conventional thinking that the Lib Dems perform better when Labour has a moderate leader. More and more figures in the party feel that they now need to work with Labour in some form to present a credible alternative choice for voters.
This is very unlikely to take the form of a formal alliance or pact, but rather informal cooperation between leaders (similar to Blair and Ashdown in 1997) and in individual seats. This is a very live debate in the party, and its outcome (and Ed Davey’s ability to settle it as leader) will have major implications.
In the next general election, we should expect to see the Liberal Democrats targeting a clear list of seats where they are in close second to the Conservatives at the moment. Many of those constituencies have a profile more similar to Chesham and Amersham than North Shropshire: Remain-leaning; more affluent; and in parts of the country, such as the home counties, that face losing the Conservatives’ political attention under the ‘levelling up’ agenda.
That doesn’t mean that seats like North Shropshire, and the old heartlands, won’t be targeted. But there is currently a nervousness about losing focus and spreading attention too thinly in an election.
However, and perhaps more fundamentally, North Shropshire has shown that now Brexit is done the Conservatives are seen by many voters as lacking a clear vision and purpose. A lot now rides on the Levelling Up plans, what happens in the pandemic and who their leader is. If they deliver results in communities that have been left behind and in rural heartlands, then the Lib Dems will need to adapt their approach.
Turning the hype into results won’t be easy. Lib Dem staffers work incredibly hard, often with little reward. North Shropshire was the best Christmas present they could have asked for.
Hyper-localism and even electoral cooperation will only take them so far. For a real resurgence in the next decade, the Lib Dems need an identity, a purpose, again. The building blocks are there. Now they just need a spark to reverse membership decline, build political momentum and make Liberalism great again.