On Sunday, I drove across north Shropshire, a largely rural corner of England that sites to the north and west of Birmingham and straddles the border with Wales. The clouds were heavy with rain and, in low-lying fields where beef cattle grazed or sheep cast not a wanting eye on passing traffic, water gathered in pools or sat in the furrows of ploughed – the result of weeks of damp weather and dismal winter forecasts.
The political forecasts were little cheerier either, for it is here, on Thursday, that voters head to the polls in a byelection caused by the resignation of the former Member of Parliament to Westminster.
Owen Patterson had represented this constituency since 1997 and stepped aside in early November – collateral damage in the fallout of a lobbying scandal that forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson into an embarrassing about-face with his Conservative party and parliament over how ethics investigations ought to be conducted when MPs commit wrongdoing. While MP for the good people of North Shropshire, Patterson pocketed six figures to lobby his government on behalf of companies seeking contracts from that same government.
As I passed through places like Welshampton, Ellesmere and Oswestry, there was little sign of the political chaos that is bubbling beneath the surface should the Conservatives lose North Shropshire. Patterson had a majority of 22,949 votes when he was elected in the Johnson landslide election victory in 2019.
According to opinion polls, the Liberal Democrats are within touching distance, some internal polling have them taking the seat, others that it’s too close to call. Whatever the actual outcome on Thursday, that Patterson’s huge majority looked to be is so much danger speaks to the chasm unfolding now in the UK.
Welshampton is a tidy village, its Sun Inn serving a good traditional Sunday lunch. Google will tell you that the village once had a railway passing through it and, back in 1897, a dozen people died in a train derailment there. The railway is long gone, but Johnson’s party could very well be heading for a train wreck if they lose the seat or barely manage to scrape through to victory.
Now, after almost two years of coronavirus and restrictions and a failure for a post-Brexit Britain to lift off, months of political infighting, weeks of growing anger over Johnson’s leadership abilities, and days of trying to figure out just what rules were broken at government Christmas gatherings this time last year, the Conservatives are fractious.
On Sunday night, Johnson took the rare step of recording a televised national broadcast to announce that his government was massively increasing its Covid-19 booster programme with the ambitious target of getting a million needles in the arms of Brits every day, all in an effort to counter the threat from the Omicron variant. That would good news, one might ordinarily imagine.
Ordinarily…. Not so, now. Not in the politics of this pandemic and polarised Britain.
Too many question marks?
Some in his own party asked why did he use a recorded televised address? Why did he not address parliament first? Why not announce it at a press briefing as happened in the past?
Why do it on a Sunday night? Was he afraid to face media questions? Was he attempting to change the message? Was it a coincidence that the address came on the evening after a Sunday newspaper carried a front-page photograph of him apparently breaking localised lockdown restrictions at an office quiz?
His political opponents have equally tough questions too. But answers are not exactly forthcoming from Downing Street right now. And even if they are, few believe the veracity of the answers.
Instead, it was left up to Cabinet ministers who explained why new restrictions were needed in England now, as people were urged to work from home once more, face masks were to be made mandatory on public transport and in shops, and why vaccine passports or current lateral flow tests are needed to gain entry to places where large numbers of people might gather in- or outdoors.
On Tuesday night, before those restrictions were put to a vote in the House of Commons, Johnson spent an hour addressing party members, trying to convince them of the need to support the public health measures.
The Tory rebellion
Tory after Tory said the new restrictions were not needed; they were an imposition of unnecessary rules now at a time when people craved more freedoms; the science behind the Omicron variant was still unknown; yes, more people might get the Omicron variant but it seems to be milder; and what moral authority does Johnson have, telling Britons to do one thing when it seems abundantly clear that he and his cadre did as they liked last Christmas when the lockdown was in place?
There was never going to be any doubt that the new face-covering and vaccine passport measures were not going to be approved by Parliament. Labour Leader, Sir Kier Starmer had said that his party would support the measures because they were needed in the national interest. Strange time that the government needs the support of the opposition to pass public health measures when, on paper has a majority of some 75 votes.
When it came to the actual vote on the measures on Tuesday evening, 99 Conservative MPs voted against their party, their government and their leader, dealing a crushing body blow to Johnson’s authority. A similar shellacking is enroute from North Shropshire win or lose, and there is no sign of this winter of very real discontent ending anytime soon.
For the last time a Conservative leader lost the support of the party in a vote to the extent that occurred on Tuesday night, you have to go back to the darkest days of the protracted Withdrawal Agreement debates at Westminster as Theresa May tried to wrangle MPs into backing her Brexit deal. Google will tell you she didn’t last too long after that. Is it déjà vu all over again now for Boris?