Uncle Peter’s Fudge Shop in Oswestry, North Shropshire, sags under rain. A man sucks his pipe and tells his tale: he voted Conservative for 60 years until 2015 [when Brexit repelled him] but no more.
“I was sent out as a child to go and canvas for the Conservatives,” he says. “I was sent out to get money and you would come back with half a crown if you were lucky and a load of abuse.” He removes his pipe, replaces it, and sucks on it again. “I done my little bit, and these are not the people I grew up with. These are not the people I voted for. When I grew up there was an old lady down the road. The thing she used to say, it stuck with me all my life: ‘You can hide from a thief. You can’t do anything with a liar’. And he [Boris Johnson] is. He wouldn’t know the truth if he fell over it.”
North Shropshire is farm land, dotted with medieval wool towns and small villages connected by pot-holed roads on which expensive buses run infrequently and late. The landed class is wealthy and well-established; the working class is white, conservative, un-unionised and earns less than the average wage. The largest minority is Bulgarian.
This constituency never sought to be a referendum on Boris Johnson’s leadership, but fate said otherwise when Owen Paterson, MP for 24 years, resigned for breaking lobbying rules, and the Prime Minster allowed his advisors to break lockdown rules and feast as people died alone. Paterson’s majority in 2019 was an enormous 22,949: 62.7% of the vote on a turnout of 67.9%. It seemed an insurmountable wall of blue, but then Boris Johnson came with chaos in hand.
The electorate here is raging, and combustible; party loyalty no longer matters, as voters behave like consumers. In May, they turned the council of Oswestry – the largest town in the constituency – Green, because, I am told, the Greens worked hard and the Conservatives neglected the constituency, because it is so safe. (There isn’t a Labour or Liberal Democrat councillor in the whole of North Shropshire.) Even so, the Liberal Democrats think they can benefit from protest and repeat their victory in Chesham and Amersham. They are, as they always do, busing in activists from all over the country, and painting the constituency orange. Doormats are buried under their campaign literature. They phonebank ferociously, “trying,” says the Green candidate Duncan Kerr, “to create a tidal wave of perception that it is going their way”. If they behave like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, driving in and cleaning up, it is working. They are now the bookies’ favourite.
Meanwhile Labour, which came second in six of the last eight General Elections and took twice the number of Liberal Democrat votes in 2019, is wielding a local candidate in the manner of a magical object: like Excalibur. He was born in Oswestry itself. “I’m Ben Wood,” he tells my Dictaphone because he is young, “I’m Labour’s local candidate in the North Shropshire by-election. I’m fighting a local campaign on local issues and the big message we are getting across is that our towns have grown but our public services are shrinking.”
The ambulance station in Oswestry just closed, he says, alongside ambulance stations in Market Drayton and Whitchurch. (People wait eight hours for an ambulance here.) There are fewer police on the streets and the school receives less funding than the national average, he adds; this election, like all rural elections, is about centralisation at heart. “I’ve got skin in the game,” he says. “I want to be a local champion and get people to buy, sell and make more locally.” For emphasis, we stop at a bread stall to buy bread made in Wrexham. “Strong trade here?” Wood asks the bread-seller. “It is a good market,” says the man, “[from] years of building it up. It’s like any market. You can’t flit in and flit out and expect the trade to be there.”
Wood is campaigning with Daniel Zeichner, the shadow minister for food, farming and fisheries; they walk together, with a local activist taking their photographs for social media. “Labour is reconnecting with the whole country,” Zeichner says. “What we are finding is that we are absolutely back in the game and people are really pleased to see a genuine alternative.”
Are they an alternative here: in a by-election, which is different from a general election? The Liberal Democrats call themselves the opposition based on the undeniable truth that angry Tories are more likely to vote Liberal Democrat than Labour. The Liberal Democrats are both a brand and a bath of protest; you step in, lie down, and get out when you wish. Then there is their deceptive graph, which shows a “two horse race”: the Liberal Democrats closing in on the Conservatives.
The graph is based on the May Shropshire council elections (North Shropshire wards) in which, thanks to the Greens standing aside in many wards, they took second place for vote share, and lost their only seat in North Shropshire: in Wem.
Labour’s other problem is that their former candidate, Graham Currie, who stood for parliament three times, was prevented from standing this time for over-enthusiastic and unsanctioned Corbynism and posted a furious missive on Facebook: “These Stalinist tactics of the NEC flies in the face of the calls for unity within the Labour Party. I am now an outsider in my own party where I have campaigned and fought for many years alongside my fellow party members for a more equal, socially just and non-discriminatory society. Labour has a corruption in its soul.” Many local activists are staying home in protest, and some Labour voters might too.
So the opposition is divided. But the anger is not. I meet the landlady at the Bailey Head pub, opposite the town museum, which tells me that Barbara Pym and Wilfred Owen were born in Oswestry, and she says the Tories are now considered indecent; barely Tories at all. And if they aren’t Tories, you can abandon them, and remain a better Tory.
“This is a traditional community,” she says. “You have to be honest and decent in a small community because you will get found out. You can’t lie to people and deceive people and expect to get away with it. It’s really quite offensive to people who live like this, where everyone knows each other, we all know what’s going on, and people do look out for each other, to then realise someone you trusted has been so deceitful”. She repeats the party’s line on Paterson, bitterly: “He broke the rules, we will change the rules to suit him.” And then on the parties in Downing Street: “There wasn’t a party, or maybe there was, or we don’t know.” She continues, sounding astonished: “You are dealing with people who have faced losing their business or they had relatives die in hospital who they couldn’t be with and meanwhile Boris’s friends have had a party, and they are lying about it and they are laughing. There are people who have voted Conservative their whole life, now saying, ‘I can’t support that, I haven’t been able to see my kids’. And they have been taking the mickey out of us. There is a real sense of rage”.
One friend, she says, a man in his 70s, has always voted Tory but is now voting Liberal Democrat, “because he wants to give them a bloody nose”. She pauses and says with absolute conviction: “They can lose 20,000 votes here in a heartbeat.” Many, she says, will stay home. Others are going to the Right: to Reform and Reclaim.
I cannot find Neil Shastri-Hurst, a barrister, for the Conservatives, but I am used to it: in four by-elections I have not met a single live Conservative candidate. They are shy, semi-mythical beings ever in peril of being chased into cupboards by Newsnight reporters. To appear in public is an opportunity to err. Shastri-Hurst is from Birmingham, which shares few issues with rural North Shropshire; he is a victim of the famous Conservative Party Central Office map, which pronounced that a farmer should stand in Hartlepool of all places. Shastri-Hurst’s enemies say he is from Birmingham in the same tone as you might say he is from France, or Iran. (One man suggested it was “dog-whistling”.) In any case, the Conservatives do not help themselves. During a flying visit to Oswestry, Boris Johnson called him Neil Shastri-Hughes [sic] and later, “Dr Neil”. “I’ve had much worse,” said the candidate, phlegmatically; and there was worse. “Very positive day campaigning in Wem for the North Staffs [sic] by-election,” tweeted Eddie Hughes MP.
There are novelty candidates too, of course: Russell Dean of The Party Party, who was born in Chester, is now a yacht broker living in Monaco and promises to fight sleaze and engage young people in politics. (His nephew is in charge on the ground.)
Then there is Earl Jesse for the Freedom Alliance standing for “political truth, medical freedom and individual prosperity” and bouncing around near Sainsbury’s in a flat cap hugging people with his party leader Jonathan Tilt. The problem with the Freedom Alliance is two-fold. First, they are too small to be a meaningful alliance. Second, though they have some good instincts — why close small shops in lockdown, when supermarkets stay open? — they rapidly sound completely insane. But they do hug you.
I find Boris Been-Bunged – also known as Faux Bojo — for the Rejoin EU Party in Oswestry by a yellow Mini that says Bollocks to Brexit (“vote tactically, we will be back”). He is a comedian and a Boris Johnson impersonator, who once pole danced with strippers as Faux Bojo in Secrets the nightclub and has burned his scalp from bleaching his hair blonde. His real name is Drew Galdron. He believes that Westminster “isn’t a democracy, it’s theatre” and he would know. The resemblance is uncanny. He amuses passers-by (he takes on the voice, which is nothing like his own) and he seems, as is usual for a comic, far more at ease as the man he despises than as himself. “People imagine I get a lot of stick,” he says. “Actually, what annoys me far more has been the sheer amount of sycophancy I’ve seen from a lot of people who like him”. Later, he is heckled by a drunk woman, who calls him a cunt, which clearly dismays him. He takes refuge in the Liar Liar coffee shop, but some lads spot him through the window. “It’s Boris!” they scream, giving thumbs up but sideways; a half thumbs up, then. But I sense the love still: for his courage – it is a mad kind of courage. I wonder if they will vote for Faux Bojo because they think he is Boris Johnson, and this has all been a terrible mistake.
Laurence Fox is here too with his candidate Martin Daubney, a former journalist. They spend a lot of time in the Fox Inn, tweeting about living in a one-party state, and how Covid is just like a cold.
I meet Duncan Kerr for the Greens. “This place is similar to many places in England,” he says. “It’s been Tory for so long that they’ve got very complacent. They don’t listen to people. They haven’t got a plan. There is an awful lot of Cake-ism [in the campaign literature]. We will fix the potholes; we will fix the ambulance service; everything is promised”.
In Whitchurch, another fine medieval town with a pinkish Baroque church, I find hope for the Conservatives: if you can call ennui hope. The landlord at the Bulls Head pub says no one is discussing sleaze “and we have been quite busy. There doesn’t seem to be any take-up for it really. Everybody thinks its crazy; everybody does the same thing. I think people are fed up with it.”
But not all: “I’m appalled,” says one woman, formerly a lifelong Conservative, of the “party business. I felt really let down. He should be good and stay good.” But she twinkles at the thought of him, and in that twinkle is, potentially, his salvation. “Tell him.”
They still talk about him as if he were a naughty child; and they still believe in his redemption, which they think has a universal meaning: the king and the land are one. “I do like Boris,” says another in Costa Coffee. “I don’t know why. I’m not going to let him down now. He’s trying.” The relationship Johnson has formed with the voters is not broken yet. But it hangs by a thread.
It is easy to assume the Conservatives will win with a greatly reduced majority. Superficially at least, the Liberal Democrats have a harder task than in Chesham and Amersham, where the Conservative majority in 2019 was much smaller than it is here (16,223 or 55.4% of the vote) and Labour barely campaigned. There was almost a levity to the protest vote in Buckinghamshire. But here people feel more betrayed; their objection is less trivial, and more heartfelt. In Old Bexley and Sidcup, the by-election held this month after James Brokenshire died, the Tories lost more than 18,000 votes – though they won. Brokenshire was liked and admired. Paterson is not; and the electorate has never been more volatile.
Not everyone agrees. I meet a man whose job is to decide if Christmas lights can be hung on medieval houses in Whitchurch. He stares at them, holding a clipboard, pondering. “Even if the Prime Minister came here and said he would sacrifice their first-born child they would still vote Conservative,” he says. He turns and looks at the line of medieval houses, thrilling in their irregularity, wondering which, if any, are sturdy enough to bear light.