After Tory's North Shropshire Defeat, BoJo's Ouster is Just a Matter of Time, Academics Say
The Tory defeat in North Shropshire is a serious problem for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is increasingly seen as a liability by his party following a series of blunders, scandals and flip-flops over British COVID measures, deem British professors Mark Garnett and Darren Lilleker.
The UK Conservative Party sustained a crushing defeat on Friday by losing its traditional stronghold, North Shropshire, to the Liberal Democrats who got the seat with 17,957 votes, a majority of nearly 6,000 votes. North Shropshire voters were "fed up" and "gave us a kicking", summarised UK Conservative Party Chairman Oliver James Dowden, commenting on the election outcome.
"Clearly the vote in North Shropshire is a very disappointing result and I totally understand people's frustrations. I hear what the voters are saying in North Shropshire and in all humility I have got to accept that verdict," Boris Johnson said, adding: "Of course I take personal responsibility."
The Conservative Party held a 22,949 majority in North Shropshire in 2019, with Conservative MP Owen Paterson occupying the seat since 1997. However, Paterson resigned earlier this year over a sleaze scandal which led to a by-election. The Tory defeat comes on the heels of a huge Conservative rebellion against UK PM Boris Johnson over the government's proposals to toughen coronavirus restrictions in England: 101 Tory MPs voted against the premier's "Plan B."
14 December 2021, 16:54 GMT
"This is a shattering blow for the Conservatives - a sign that they can no longer take support for granted in any part of the UK," says Mark Garnett, a politics professor at Lancaster University and author of the book "The British Prime Minister in an Age of Upheaval."
What's more, it is even more damaging for Boris Johnson, according to the professor, who sees the outcome of the North Shropshire by-election as a sign of a protest against his leadership.
"Over the years, Boris Johnson has proved himself a very successful campaigner, shrugging off criticisms from opponents and selling himself as a nationalist with eternal optimism. But as with many great campaigners, they do not make good leaders," echoes Professor Darren Lilleker, a lecturer and researcher in political communication at Bournemouth University.
Lilleker notes that since May 2020, Johnson’s standing with the public has slowly fallen, with the latest by-election defeat being a symptom of that. According to the academic, over this period BoJo has proven incapable of managing the pandemic effectively: the prime minister has had to perform several U-turns. In addition to that, BoJo got mired in the Paterson sleaze scandal, repeated blunders and unpopular COVID measures.
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"There are those who do not support him because he is not bringing in more restrictions – these are largely not naturally his voters anyway," the professor remarks. "There are also those who want no restrictions, these are his strongest supporters – a libertarian right – but they are abandoning him. So in the end he is losing support from all sides."
Lilleker believes that it's "increasingly unlikely" that Boris Johnson will remain in power for long, with a leadership challenge likely in 2022: "The Conservative party works like a business, and its business is winning elections, any leader who becomes a liability will be removed. It seems Johnson is now proving himself a liability."
Garnett agrees that "there are good reasons for thinking that a majority of Conservative MPs have already decided that they need a new leader," adding that the question is one of timing.
"Few politicians would like to take over in Downing Street at a time of extreme uncertainty, and Johnson's rivals (like the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss) will be hoping that Johnson can survive until the worst effects of the omicron variant are over," the professor explains.
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At the same time, Garnett does not think that Tory will resort to a vote of no confidence which is "always unpleasant for a governing party". The academic recalls that the Conservatives have never really recovered from the removal of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Therefore, "MPs will be hoping that Johnson either resigns at a time which suits the party's interests, or is forced to resign without a vote", he presumes.
One potential trigger could become an inquiry into Downing Street's 2020 Christmas party, according to the academic: BoJo could be ousted if the investigation finds that he has misled the House of Commons over recent allegations concerning the party in defiance of the government's own regulations.