Politics

Scottish LibDem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton claims shock byelection win carries warning for SNP

THE leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats has said the North Shropshire byelection result could have an impact on Scotland and the SNP.

Alex Cole-Hamilton said the LibDems’ stunning victory in the former Tory stronghold was part of a “wave of new hope” that could roll on into next year’s local elections. 

He said: “Victories like this stand us in great stead for next year’s council elections, where LibDem campaigners across Scotland will offer new hope to those who feel abandoned by Boris Johnson’s Conservative party and Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalists.” 

The LibDems went backwards at the last council election in 2017, dropping four councillors to 67, while the Tories went from 115 to 276, Labour from 394 to 262 and the SNP up six to 431.

The Tories had held the North Shropshire seat for almost 200 years, losing it briefly only once in a by-election more than a century ago.

At the 2019 general election, Owen Paterson held the seat with a majority of almost 23,000. 

However the LibDems overturned that to win by 5,925 votes last night, on a swing of 34.2 per cent, the seventh largest in a byelection since World War Two.

The party had been third behind Labour in 2019, but benefited from Labour supporters voting tactically, a low-key Labour campaign, and a backlash against Boris Johnson. Turnout was 46.3%.

READ MORE: North Shropshire by-election: Owen Paterson seat lost to Lib-Dems

The LibDems were also helped by the way the byelection came about.

Mr Paterson was last month found guilty of breaking Westminster lobbying rules and the Prime Minister tried to change the standards regime to spare him a suspension.

The move backfired spectacularly, the PM backed down, Mr Paterson resigned, and a wave of Tory sleaze stories emerged which ran seamlessly into rows over Number 10 and Tory HQ parties during lockdown, Downing Street’s refurbishment and the return of Covid restrictions.  

The LibDems foregrounded the sleaze issue in the byelection and made it a referendum on Mr Johnson and his government’s performance. 

“Tell them the party’s over,” ran the LibDems’ campaign message on social media.

The Tories also selected a candidate from outside the seat, Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst from Birmingham, which irritated some electors.

Tory MPs will now be considering whether the Prim Minister has become and electoral millstone and should be replaced next year.

North Shropshire was the second LibDem gain from the Tories this year – Sarah Green won the Chesham and Amersham byelection in June. 

Helen Morgan, the new LibDem MP for North Shropshire, said after her win: “Boris Johnson, the party is over.”

READ MORE: Covid: Boris Johnson ‘attended Downing Street party during first UK lockdown’

Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “The British public is tired of being taken for granted by a careless Tory government. 

“This astonishing result will have Conservatives up and down the country quaking in their boots.  

“It is a great victory for my party in a constituency the Conservatives have held since 1832 and in which the Labour party fought hard but were relegated to a distant third.  

“The community in North Shropshire felt ignored and taken for granted, and we listened. We offered a fresh alternative. We offered new hope.  

“In 2017 the Liberal Democrats barely got our deposit back in this seat but today we achieved one of the biggest swings in electoral history. 

“This shows that the Liberal Democrats bring a tidal wave of New Hope that can destroy any blue wall.”  

Neal Lawson, Director of the progressive pressure group Compass, said voters had formed an alliance and were “way ahead of the politicians” in wanting a change in politics

Calling for Labour-LibDem joint working, he said: “What is given in by-elections is often taken away in generals unless progressive parties learn to work more effectively together.

“Labour was playing with fire in this by-election. 

“The party locally ignored the quiet deal that Keir Starmer and Ed Davey had clearly done – and could have split the vote to disastrous effect.

“In a general election, splitting the progressive vote is the Tories best hope of staying in power.’

“In 1997 Labour and the Liberal Democrats worked successfully together. 

Today the electoral mountain is much steeper. 

“We need 1997-plus levels of cross-party working, but we are getting 1997-minus.’

“The electoral map is crystal clear. The Lib Dems are second in 80 Tory seats. 

“They and Labour have no fight with each other. The two parties need to create a national mood that it’s time for change and then get out of each other’s way.”

READ MORE: Tories at war as Johnson faces Covid crisis, by Mike Settle

Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said the result was a blow, but said the Government would carry on much as before.

He said: “I know that the voters of North Shropshire are fed up and they wanted to give us a kicking… We’ve heard that message loud and clear.”

But he added: “I don’t think this amounts to a sea-change.”

However the veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said the prime minister was on “last orders”.

He told Radio 4’s Today programme: “One more strike and he’s out,” adding the byelection “has to be seen as a referendum on the Prime Minister’s performance”.

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