It might have been in territory where Tories would usually expect to do well, but after everything that’s happened it’s a cause for some optimism.
No, I’ve not a) lost my marbles b) am currently on St Kilda and have had no access to news over the past 36 hours or c) have been sent out by Number 10 to put a positive gloss on the slaughter in North Shropshire.
No, I write instead of Thursday’s Lomond North by-election in which Rosneath businessman Paul Collins strolled to victory with 742 votes, 283 ahead of his nearest rival, the SNP’s Ken Smith. Crisis? What crisis?
Not to diminish Cllr Collins’ undoubted achievement, but perhaps if there had been a nuclear submarine base directly employing 6,000 people and supporting thousands more just outside Oswestry, or if neither Labour nor Lib Dems had fielded a candidate, then we might have woken up to the news that Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst had seen off all other comers to replace Owen Paterson and continue the constituency’s tradition of Conservative representation stretching back over two centuries.
Instead, yesterday’s airwaves were dominated by Conservative figureheads trying to put as positive a gloss as possible on a 23,000 majority turning into a 6,000 defeat.
But from John Redwood declaring that the outcome was not a verdict on Boris Johnson ─ and 12,000 loyal Conservative voters might agree ─ but on unpopular policies, to Sir Roger Gale saying that “one more strike” and the Prime Minister would be out, there was consensus that something dramatic will be needed to address what is undeniably a crisis in Number 10, despite Cllr Collins’ best efforts.
After Tuesday’s backbench rebellion over vaccine passports and the by-election trouncing, Lord Christopher Geidt, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, may be about to step onto the pitcher’s mound to deliver that third strike.
With allegations Mr Johnson misled him during his investigation into the funding of refurbishments of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat ─ telling Lord Geidt he knew nothing about it until news reports in February when the Electoral Commission has revealed a message from him the previous November asking for cash from party donor Lord Brownlow ─ a diplomatic but furious resignation from the Queen’s former Private Secretary could mean curtains.
Mr Johnson’s problem is that everything needs to go right from now on and, with new claims about lockdown parties merging on a seemingly daily basis, five per cent inflation being followed by an increase in interest rates and rail fares, and what is now effectively a voluntary Omicron lockdown, that’s a very tall order even for someone whose popularity ratings aren’t tumbling.
Maybe fortunes can be turned around if acceleration of the booster vaccinations and business support programmes successfully keeps the economy going, because it’s already obvious there will be no preventing the spread of the new ultra-transmissible variant.
Mr Johnson’s many reputational issues need not be repeated here, but after the Chesham & Amersham by-election defeat and now North Shropshire, the saving grace of his reputation as a winner is crumbling and the other parties scent blood, not least the SNP.
Nicola Sturgeon called a televised press conference yesterday to deliver a new health message which said virtually nothing new to the statement she gave last week. Although there was a predictable plea to the UK government for more money and, for her, mild criticism that she was having to wait till the afternoon for a conversation with Mr Johnson, the conference was shorn of vitriol because the message was all about empathy and the juxtaposition of steely calm compared to the evolving chaos enveloping Downing Street.
The only new information was the announcement that the Scottish government had “found” £100m to support businesses affected by Omicron, but the statement failed to acknowledge the additional £220m from UK reserves announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, or the revelation that Audit Scotland found a £580m underspend from Covid budgets last year, or indeed that £350m has been earmarked in the budget for the constitution department, presumably for the Indyref2 campaign. It’s reasonable then to speculate that rather than £100m, yesterday’s announcement could have been closer to £1bn without any more cash from Westminster or affecting front-line services.
In an unfortunate slip, the First Minister said if she received more money from the UK government, she would “love” to close down entertainment venues but judging by the tetchy responses to journalists’ questions she sounded like she would love to shut down the media.
The problem for Conservatives is that Thursday’s by-election only adds to the sense that scrutiny of the Scottish government’s record is stymied by the problems in Downing Street, and those who pressed for the separation of the Scottish Conservatives from the UK party in the 2011 leadership contest won by Ruth Davidson are now back on manoeuvres.
Perhaps they will point to Lomond North as evidence to bolster the case and Scottish party leader Douglas Ross has certainly done all he can to distance himself from Number 10, but he has given no indication that he’s preparing to press the ejector button.
That’s not to say it won’t happen if the situation in London doesn’t improve, but any attempt to cleave away the Scottish party would produce a schism in the only party guaranteed to oppose a second referendum.
Even with Labour now polling an eight-point lead, a leadership challenge is unlikely during the Omicron surge so maybe Sir Roger’s third strike won’t come until May’s council elections, but the occupancy of Downing Street has unavoidable implications for the future of Scottish Conservatism and the Union itself. If the alarm has been ringing for the past weeks, it’s now clanging on the floor.
John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh