ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana scopes out the mood in North Shropshire, Owen Paterson's former constituency, as a number of Tory voters say they plan to switch parties
Boris Johnson’s troubles may originate inside Downing Street, but they are being strongly felt 180 miles away – in the heart of the North Shropshire constituency up for a by-election next week.
The seat, held by the Tories with a huge majority of almost 23,000, was vacated by Owen Paterson after he became engulfed in the standards debacle that triggered the start of a terrible period for the prime minister.
In Whitchurch, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey returned on Friday for his fifth visit to the seat, as some bookies declared his party favourites to win. It didn’t take long to find people talking about switching from the Tories to the Lib Dem candidate, Helen Morgan.
One man, standing at his door, said his brother had decided to switch this week in anger at the alleged Downing Street parties. Another said he was trying to persuade his Labour-backing partner to swing Lib Dem in a tactical anti-Tory vote.
Then there was a woman who seemed overjoyed to see Mr Davey despite voting Conservative in almost all elections (apart from 1997). She said she was voting Lib Dem this time because of a combination of alleged parties, flat refurbs and the Paterson saga.
Asked how she felt about Mr Johnson, she said the language she would need to use would be too rude to broadcast.
A woman who has voted Conservative in previous elections explains why she won't be voting Tory this time
It was a sentiment that was repeated several times, including from people being canvassed by the Labour party and one walking past the Conservative candidate, Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst.
One lady and her husband said they had always voted Conservative but were wavering for the first time.
One woman who had always voted Conservative says she is unsure about voting Tory again
Asked whether the allegations about parties were hurting his chances, the Tory candidate said he was trying to focus on local issues.
But it was clear, he knew he had to address the issues. On Christmas party allegations, I’m angry too – he said – describing how he and his wife had to isolate last Christmas, arguing that if rules were broken there ought to be sanctions.
Dr Shastri-Hurst is also being attacked by opponents for not being local – with leaflets describing him as a barrister from Birmingham, an issue that was heard on the doorstep.
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The mood was certainly tough for the Tories – but would it really amount to its 23,000 majority being overturned?
Professor Colin Rallings said the question for opposition parties in North Shropshire is which of them is best set to beat the Conservatives - because it will only happen if enough voters coalesce around one party.
The Lib Dems say it’s a two-horse race between them and the Tories because of how well they did in local elections, coming second overall.
But the Labour candidate disagrees, pointing to his party’s second place in the 2019 general election.
He certainly had canvassers out in force while knocking on doors. But sources in Labour HQ – back in Westminster – tell me that while they do not do pacts with other parties, they think this seat is out of sight for them.
Prof Rallings argued that this rural, traditional seat was more suited to a Lib Dem insurgency as the party can be seen as a compromise option for those on the right.
However, he said that with so many candidates (14 in total including anti-Brexit parties like Reform UK on one side and the Greens on the other) there was a chance the Tories could hold on, even with just 25% of the vote.
But he also stressed this is a mid-term by-election at a tricky time for the Tories, which is inevitably going to attract protest.
And so, Prof Rallings argued that even if the Tories lose next week - they’d be very likely to win the seat back at the next general election.
Here is a list of all 14 candidates in the North Shropshire by-election as voters head to the polls next Thursday: