Voters in North Shropshire wanted to send “a message” to the Conservatives and “we have heard that loud and clear”, party co-chairman Oliver Dowden has said – as a veteran Tory warned Boris Johnson he has “one more strike” left.
Mr Dowden’s comments came after the Conservatives lost the North Shropshire by-election to the Liberal Democrats in a shock result that puts more pressure on Boris Johnson after a difficult few weeks for the prime minister.
“Voters in North Shropshire were fed up and they gave us a kicking and I think they wanted to send us a message – and I want to say, as chairman of the Conservative Party, we have heard that loud and clear,” Mr Dowden told Sky News.
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“We need to get on with delivering the job and that is precisely what we are doing, for example, with the booster programme to deal with the Omicron variant.”
Mrs Morgan polled 17,957 votes, ahead of Tory candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst on 12,032, giving her a majority of 5,925.
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Labour’s Ben Wood was a distant third with 3,686 votes.
Long-serving Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale said the Tories’ North Shropshire by-election defeat should be seen as a “referendum” on Mr Johnson’s premiership and described it as “not a happy day for the prime minister”.
I thought it was highly likely that this would happen.
“I do not want to detract from Helen Morgan’s very considerable victory, but this wasn’t a vote for the Liberal Democrats, this was, effectively, a referendum on the performance coming out of Downing Street at the moment,” he told Sky News.
“He has got good fortune of having the House in recess. The House has got time to think about this, the party has got time to think about this. He has got about three weeks now to regroup and he is going to have to do that very fast indeed.
“We have had two strikes – first of all, the Conservative Party in the House of Commons earlier this week, now this result. One more strike and I think he is out.”
Sir Roger also confirmed he has already written a letter to the Conservative 1922 Committee of backbench MPs but does not know how many more of his colleagues have.
“I would not be a bit surprised if people didn’t start to write some of those letters,” he told Sky News.
He added that it is “quite possible” that “there might be a protest vote” in the Southend by-election in the New Year – despite both Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreeing not to stand due to the circumstances of former MP Sir David Amess’ death.
“This is not a happy time for the prime minister, I am afraid.”
In Mrs Morgan’s victory speech, the Lib Dems’ 13th MP said voters in North Shropshire have “spoken on behalf of the British people” and told Mr Johnson “loudly and clearly” that “the party is over”.
But speaking to Sky News on Friday morning, Mr Dowden told Sky News that the PM is still an “electoral asset” to the Conservative Party and has the “drive and determination” to lead.
He added that while he does not know how many letters of no confidence may have been submitted to the Conservative 1922 Committee, he still has “every confidence” in Mr Johnson.
“Just take the three really big calls we’ve faced. Get Brexit done: he’s delivered on it. We’ve delivered the fastest booster programme in the world twice over and we’ve seen the economy through this terrible period, with unemployment lower than when we entered,” he said.
“So I think actually on the big calls the prime minister has the vision and the direction to get us through this difficult period.”
Defending the by-election loss, the Conservative Party chairman added that events like this happen “time and time” again “mid-term”.
But Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey described the win as “a watershed moment in British politics”.
He said many people who voted for his party in North Shropshire were individuals who “played by the rules, who used to vote Conservative”.
“I think the Liberal Democrats are on a roll now,” he said, noting it was another win in “the Tory heartlands” for his party.