The Liberal Democrats have overturned a huge Tory majority to win the North Shropshire by-election in a seismic victory that will pile further pressure on Boris Johnson.
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.
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s authority was dealt another blow with the swing to the Lib Dems a massive 34 per cent in the ballot triggered by the resignation of Owen Paterson.
The former minister had a near-23,000 majority in the West Midlands constituency in the 2019 general election when Mr Johnson achieved a landslide, but support evaporated as the Tories battle damning allegations on multiple fronts.
Not only was the vote triggered by the sleaze scandal centred on Mr Paterson, it came after the beleaguered prime minister has been battered by claims of lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street.
And the defeat will cap a torrid week that included the massive rebellion Conservative backbenchers dealt Mr Johnson on Tuesday over his new coronavirus restrictions as the Omicron variant surged.
Ms Morgan won 17,957 votes, trouncing Tory candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst into second on 12,032.
“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.
‘Lies and bluster’
“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.”
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 per cent of the vote and held the seat with a majority of 22,949 over Labour.
Ms Morgan came third with just 10 per cent of the vote when facing Mr Paterson in the general election.
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 per cent swing to the Lib Dems was the fourth largest in a byelection 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 per cent 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.
Liberal Democrat leader 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.”
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 per cent, or 38,110 voters. – PA
Hines has reached a binding agreement for an off-market investment to acquire 20 logistics assets located between Emilia Romagna and Lombardy through the Italian fund HEVF II Italy managed by Prelios SGR on behalf of the Hines European Value Fund 2 (HEVF 2). The transaction involves the acquisition of the real estate portfolio from four different selling companies and the simultaneous 15-year lease of the same portfolio to Snatt Logistica Group, a leader in the third-party logistics (3PL) sector focusing exclusively on the fashion industry. The portfolio of 20 logistics assets provides a total of 200,000m² of logistics space around Milan, Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Bologna. They are strategic, well-established logistic centres that enjoy effective, rapid connections with Italy’s main cities and the rest of Europe.
“We are pleased to start 2022 with an important investment in the logistics sector that consolidates our presence in the main intersections in Northern Italy. At Hines, we believe in the potential of the logistics sector in Italy and have set an investment target of around €1bn in 2022,” commented Mario Abbadessa, senior managing director & country head of Hines Italy. “We are proud to collaborate with Snatt Logistica Group, which is an international 3PL logistics leader in the luxury fashion industry, and we are certain that we will be able to develop a shared path for growth, guided by common values, including ESG, which is key to our DNA.”
Paul White, senior managing director and fund manager for HEVF 2 at Hines, said: “This is an attractive portfolio of assets with a strong, innovative tenant at the forefront of Italy’s fast-growing third-party logistics sector for the fashion industry. We believe that e-commerce will continue to drive long-term demand for high-quality logistics facilities in Italy’s northern cities, pushing the value of these investments forwards, while there is also a significant opportunity to enhance the sustainability performance of existing assets here. This is aligned with our ESG objectives as recognised by GRESB, with HEVF 2 achieving the award of Overall Global Sector Leader in the Diversified Office/Retail category for sustainability performance in 2021.”
“Don’t mind your press releases,” a Fine Gael source was told by a more experienced hand on their first day in Leinster House; “If you want something out there, just say it in the PP [parliamentary party meeting].”
It’s a truism of Irish politics that these meetings – especially those of the two larger Government parties – leak like the proverbial sieve. This got worse during Covid, when virtual meetings meant members were unencumbered by the need to even appear interested, and journalists were freely briefed in real time. The content of the meeting, coupled with the observations of parliamentarians – arch, knowing, and unfiltered – populated twitter streams and news copy.
So, when Simon Coveney’s remarks about his surprise at the meeting between the Russian ambassador to Ireland and the head of the defence forces were promptly headline news, it can’t have been too much of a shock. “He knows he’s speaking at the leakiest meeting in Leinster House,” observed a source present.
Still, some in the room thought when Michael Creed raised the issue, Coveney would just “warble on like you normally do”. Instead, after a gap of several minutes while other questions were fielded, the Minister for Defence bit down. He said he was “surprised to put it mildly”, several sources present said, and questioned the judgement of it.
Afterwards, sources close to Coveney quickly asserted the Minister meant the tweet from the Russians, and the accompanying picture, were the issue, not the meeting. But multiple sources at the parliamentary party interpreted it as referring to the meeting, and what’s more, as a direct rebuke to the chief of staff. “The tone I got was he was f***ing livid,” said one source.
Either way, the remark was leaked, it was controversial, and early the next morning, Coveney was mending fences in the Dáil, expressing confidence in Clancy and contrition for having brought him into the line of political fire.
A kind interpretation, offered by some at the meeting, is that he feels honour-bound to respond fully to questions from parliamentary colleagues. There is likely truth to that. But equally, many believe he would have known his comments would have been controversial, open to interpretation as a rebuke to the head of the Defence Forces, and that it was meant as a shot across the bows.
Others postulate that – perhaps more worryingly – he didn’t detect the political risk inherent in the remarks, which the Opposition would say had undermined the Chief of Staff . “Simon should have known this was going to result in public comment,” said another person there.
That, in truth is the bigger concern – that Coveney’s bad run of form is down to a blunted political dexterity. “You’d know by the way he said it he wasn’t trying to cause controversy,” one colleague said – adding that it was, however, evidence of Coveney’s new knack of “making small problems into big ones”.