I’m uneasy. After an autumn defined by the prime minister’s lies and evasions, voters in the North Shropshire byelection this Thursday should and must send a decisive message that enough is enough. That the careless lack of integrity and honesty that are the hallmarks of his government, culminating in taking the public for fools in denying the existence of a Christmas party that plainly was, are degrading politics and with it the functioning of the British state.
But will they? The bookmakers certainly make the Lib Dems favourites to take the seat. A leaked internal Lib Dem postal poll taken before the extraordinary events of the past week put their candidate just 10 points behind the Tory frontrunner. Now the margin must be closer.
The Lib Dems are surely the challenger. Indeed, there was an informal understanding between the Labour and Lib Dem leaderships that just as the Lib Dems would not campaign actively in Old Bexley and Sidcup, giving Labour a free run, so Labour would return the favour in North Shropshire. Every shadow cabinet minister was required not to campaign in the seat: none has.
First-past-the-post voting imposes tough choices. Every Labour and Green voter must put aside their prime party affiliation and back the Lib Dem candidate while those decent Tories who can’t bring themselves to vote for a non-Tory might consider staying away from the polls . What was done at the Chesham and Amersham byelection in June, where the Labour candidate received just 622 votes, must be repeated.
Imagine what it would have felt like, had the contest been tighter, to have been one of those 622, waking up to realise you had the chance to send a crucial signal – but blew it. (In the end, in Chesham and Amersham, the Lib Dems won by a handsome margin.)
Yet despite the bookmakers’ odds, Chesham and Amersham may not be repeated. North Shropshire is pro-Brexit and a Tory citadel, a rural constituency where vestigial semi-feudalism and social deference give succour to Toryism. There, to be Conservative is somehow non-political, part of the natural English order of things. The system of lord lieutenants, an office established by Henry VIII as the monarch’s representative in every county, lives on, its holders typically Conservative, even if undeclared.
But their countywide good works serve to lift Toryism out of party politics. Thus Shropshire’s lord lieutenancy office has a typical roll call of the county’s great and good – squires, retired military, local business people, the landed – cementing the county into the Tory camp. With no major towns, industry or universities in the constituency to provide balance, it is an inestimable electoral asset; nobody, despite the pantomime in No 10, can be certain which way it will now jump.
The catalytic influence will be the reports that Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s former private secretary, now the prime minister’s adviser on ethics and standards, is considering resigning because Johnson lied to him when he said he did not know when and who was funding the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. If monarchist, “non-political” Geidt goes early this week, it will be decisive. It will be a signal to Tory England that one of their best allies considers their leader an inveterate liar. Johnson’s career as PM will be over.
Who with any standing or self-respect could succeed Geidt? Here, although it will stick in many Labour activists’ craw, is the crucial social role played by the Lib Dems. They, too, can enjoy in some places a standing as somehow “non-political”, notwithstanding their political leanings. This explains why they are a crucial part of any progressive alliance. They will be the beneficiaries in North Shropshire of Tory disintegration, as they would be in other parts of rural England in a general election. Their 12 MPs could easily rise to over 50 – if there is intelligent tactical voting.
In the 1997 general election, tactical voting was worth up to 30 seats; as the then Observer editor, I spent a large part of the annual promotional budget on a poll of 20 marginals to support just that aim. All the seats fell to Labour or the Lib Dems. It was also in that election that Michael Portillo, then defence secretary, unexpectedly lost the hitherto safe Enfield Southgate seat.
In 2019, there was not much evidence of tactical voting; the “non-political” were not going to play any part in putting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. Sir Keir Starmer may be criticised by the left for his moderation and caution; in a first-past-the-post voting system it is a crucial asset in emboldening tactical voting.
The open question is how to encourage what is a strategic necessity; the chance of Labour winning 125 seats to form a government demands an impossible swing. There will have to be Lib Dem gains and an agreement that the party will support a Labour-led government. Everyone knows this truth – not acknowledging it holds more risk than evading it.
The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, was only floored, in an otherwise devastating attack on the government on the Today programme, when he was asked if he would support tactical voting in North Shropshire. The stock reply – the electorate don’t want party fixes but clear choices – is nonsense with first past the post. Indeed, to endorse first past the post is to legitimise one of the chief building blocks of Tory England’s grip on government: it is the glue that holds the party together and, given the opposition vote splitting, confers continual electoral ascendancy.
Openly to admit what is now being done privately would instead give a new seriousness of purpose to British politics and allow opposition politicians not to dodge the obvious question that tripped up Streeting. If the voters of North Shropshire have a sacred duty not to vote Tory this Thursday, Starmer and Ed Davey have a parallel responsibility. British capitalism, society and democracy need a fundamental reset, as does our broken relationship with Europe.
None of this is going to come from Johnson or the amoral party that indulged him. It requires a broad-based progressive government. Tactical voting must step out of the shadows: it is time for it to be formalised in a transparent public pact. The times demand no less.