Voters in North Shropshire, where the Liberal Democrats overturned a huge Tory majority to win a by-election triggered by sleaze allegations, gave the party "a kicking," the Conservative Party Chair has said.
In one of the most comprehensive by-election defeats in recent decades, the Conservatives lost what was an ultra-safe seat to Lib Dem Helen Morgan by 5,925 votes.
Speaking after the defeat that will pile further pressure on Boris Johnson, Oliver Dowden told ITV News that the result was a "clear message from the voters of North Shropshire that they're fed up".
He admitted there had been some "unforced errors" from the Conservative Party, including the sleaze allegations that had forced the by-election, that had influenced voters, but dismissed the result as a signal of a "sea change" in British politics.
"The government have heard that and we're listening to those concerns," Tory Chair, Oliver Dowden insists the message has got through to government
The swing to the Lib Dems - a massive 34% - in the ballot triggered by the resignation of Owen Paterson, has dealt the prime minister's authority another blow.
The former minister had a near-23,000 majority in the constituency in the 2019 general election when Mr Johnson achieved a landslide victory, but support evaporated as the Tories battle damning allegations on multiple fronts.
Watch the moment a Lib Dem victory was declared in the North Shropshire by-election in the early hours of Friday
The defeat caps a torrid week for the PM - which included the massive rebellion Conservative backbenchers dealt Mr Johnson on Tuesday over his new coronavirus restrictions as the Omicron variant surged.
ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand said the loss had put momentum into a mounting Tory leadership challenge, with Conservative MPs "actively pondering candidates to be next PM this morning".
Ms Morgan won 17,957 votes, trouncing Tory candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst into second on 12,032.
Speaking in Oswestry outside The Bailey Head pub after a 25-minute walkabout through the market town in her constituency, Ms Morgan said she was "absolutely thrilled, humbled and honoured.
She added that voters had been “moving towards” the Liberal Democrats – and away from the Conservatives – “even before the issue with the party, last week”.
“We found that people really felt as if they were taken for granted,” she said.
"Tonight, the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people.
"They have said loudly and clearly, ‘Boris Johnson, the party is over’,” Ms Morgan said in her victory speech.
“Your government, run on lies and bluster, will be held accountable. It will be scrutinised, it will be challenged and it can and will be defeated.”
Helen Morgan delivers her victory speech
ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener reflects on a 'historic' by-election
A historic by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats in North Shropshire has just turned British politics upside down.
Boris Johnson - for more than five years the Tories’ greatest electoral asset - proved to be a liability.
His botched attempt to save the former MP here Owen Paterson from being punished for breaking lobbying rules backfired spectacularly - and a 23,000 majority simply disappeared.
Allegations of illegal parties at No 10 also proved hugely damaging, upsetting voters who’d returned a Tory MP here for two hundred years.
The Lib Dems can rightly claim to have put the damaging Coalition years behind them. Equally significant, the party that wanted to remain in the EU won in a Brexit-voting area.
Many farmers were apparently angry over new trade deals which they feared would allow in cheap foreign food imports.
Helen Morgan is the new MP, a local parish councillor whose campaign has caused a political sensation, leaving Boris Johnson in massive trouble.
North Shropshire had returned a Tory MP in every vote since 1983, which was the constituency’s first election in its current form.
But the Brexit-backing area has been true blue, only twice voting for another colour, since the Conservative Party’s inception in 1830.
Mr Paterson represented the constituency for 24 years until his resignation after the prime minister’s botched attempt to shield him from a 30-day suspension.
Mr Johnson attempted to force a Tory-led review of the rules for MPs after Mr Paterson was found to have breached lobbying rules for two companies paying him £100,000 a year.
Multiple fresh allegations of sleaze were levelled at the Tories during the row and ultimately the MP was forced to resign, saying he wanted to escape the “cruel world of politics”.
Leaving the election count in defeat, Mr Shastri-Hurst was asked if the prime minister was to blame for the dismal result.
“We’ve run a positive campaign here, I’m extremely proud of the work that everybody’s done. Of course it’s a disappointing result for us,” he told reporters.
Asked if the party needs to change, he said: “We’re 11 years into a Conservative government, by-elections are never an easy thing to do.”
In 2019, the Tories won 62.7% of the vote and held the seat with a majority of 22,949 over Labour.
Ms Morgan came third with just 10% of the vote when facing Mr Paterson in the general election.
'One more strike and he's out': Tory MPs react to shock by-election defeat
Senior Tory backbencher Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown has said the party paid the price in the North Shropshire by-election for a series of “self-inflicted own goals” while long-serving Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale said this by-election defeat should be seen as a “referendum” on Mr Johnson’s premiership.
Looking ahead to the risk of the result being replicated in other Tory heartlands, Mr Gale said the electorate has “sent a very clear message to Downing Street that they are dissatisfied with the management of this government”. The North Thanet MP since 1983 suggested that the prime minister must improve his performance if he wants his time in office to continue.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme Mr Johnson was now “‘last orders’ time'.”
“Two strikes already, one earlier this week in the vote in the Commons and now this. One more strike and he’s out.
“The Conservative Party has a reputation for not taking prisoners. If the prime minister fails, the prime minister goes."
Not only was the vote triggered by the sleaze scandal centred on Mr Paterson, it came as the beleaguered prime minister has been battered by claims of lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street.
Allegations of multiple Christmas parties during lockdown had been a key area of concern on the doorstep.
Mr Dowden said: "I appreciate that people feel frustrated, by a sense that, rather than focusing on getting on with the job, we may be being distracted by other things."
Despite recent, what he termed "unforced errors," the former culture secretary insisted Mr Johnson was an "asset".
"The big question of getting Brexit done. He got Brexit done. When we're faced with the biggest crisis for many generations, he spearheaded delivering the fastest vaccine rollout programme in the world twice over... It's those kinds of big calls that he's got," he told ITV News.
He said the results "sent in a letter of no confidence in Boris Johnson to the Conservative’s 1922 Committee."
“I went five times to North Shropshire, I had 10 days’ canvassing, and people were really clear, it was the health service, it was the rising cost of living," he told the Today programme. “These are people who’ve played by the rules, who used to vote Conservative.”
"The game's over" - North Shropshire voters on why they turned their backs on the Tories
Thursday’s defeat compounds a tumultuous period for Mr Johnson after 100 Conservatives defied the leadership to vote against the introduction of mandatory Covid health passes for entry to large venues – the biggest rebellion since he entered No 10.
Asked on Wednesday if Mr Johnson would quit if North Shropshire falls, the prime minister’s press secretary said: “We are fighting for every vote.”
The 34% swing to the Lib Dems was the fourth largest in a by-election in the last 30 years and even bigger than in the party’s first seizure of a former Tory stronghold since the general election.
Chesham and Amersham had been a Conservative stronghold since the constituency’s creation in 1974, but the Lib Dems took it with a 25% swing from the Tories in July.
Ms Morgan, a 46-year-old accountant who lives in the Shropshire village of Harmer Hill, will become the newest MP having beaten Mr Shastri-Hurst, a barrister based in Birmingham.
Sir Ed Davey, in a statement from isolation after testing positive for Covid-19, said: “This result is a watershed moment in our politics and offers hope to people around the country that a brighter future is possible.
“Millions of people are fed up with Boris Johnson and his failure to provide leadership throughout the pandemic and last night the voters of North Shropshire spoke for all of them.
“From Buckinghamshire to Shropshire, lifelong Conservatives have turned to the Liberal Democrats in their droves and sent a clear message to the prime minister that the party is over.”
The party leader shared video of him celebrating the win.
Labour was also celebrating the victory, with a source arguing it was a “disaster” for Mr Johnson which shows he is “too weak to lead”.
“Not only has the prime minister lost his authority in the House, he’s lost control of his party, and he’s lost the benefit of the doubt with the public,” they said.
The turnout in North Shropshire was 46.3%, or 38,110 voters.