After North Shropshire by-election, Liberal Democrat revival could see SNP lose the Prime Minister of their dreams – Brian Wilson

Sir Roger Gale is one of these not very bright Tories who morphs into the obligatory description “grandee” on the grounds he has been around Westminster for ever, or since 1983 actually.

Following the North Shropshire byelection, questions have been raised about the political future of Boris Johnson, pictured on a constituency visit to Uxbridge police station yesterday (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Following the North Shropshire byelection, questions have been raised about the political future of Boris Johnson, pictured on a constituency visit to Uxbridge police station yesterday (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

When Sir Roger speaks, the nation rarely listens. However, it may have nodded in silent approval yesterday when he gave his adjudication to the Today programme on the Prime Minister’s prospects. One more strike and he is out.

For an increasing number of Tory MPs, not least in Scotland, the obvious question is: “Why wait?” Things are not going to get better any time soon. The winner has become a loser and if North Shropshire can fall so dramatically, there is not a safe Tory fortress in the land.

In such circumstances, the usual line of defence is to shrug and say “by-elections happen”, then recall Mrs Thatcher’s propensity for rising from the political dead. Labour should not get too excited about an eight per cent lead when she used to recover from opinion poll deficits three times that level.

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However, Johnson is no Thatcher, far less a Churchill. He is a chancer who has been rumbled and will need a lot more than chutzpah to dispel the impression of not being fit for the job. That perception, once established, is more difficult to dispel than more routine sources of political dissatisfaction.

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Many Tories, like Sir Roger, regard getting rid of Johnson as a worthwhile end in itself, without further calculation. There are still plenty who have neither forgotten nor forgiven the ruthless, self-seeking treatment of his predecessor and those who supported her. He deserves no mercy and, when the moment comes, will get none.

The North Shropshire result is a great triumph for the Liberal Democrats and nobody should begrudge them it. They are a necessary force in British politics and their current weakness is to the detriment of Parliament. Their decision in 2010 to throw in their lot with the Tories was deeply self-destructive and will never be repeated.

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In by-election conditions, they are again the safe haven for protest votes from both left and right. Labour rightly stood back in this contest, as in Chesham and Amersham, because that maximised the chances of Tory defeat. Inevitably, this raises the question of whether or not the same approach could work nationally, in a General Election.

That is a very different proposition and not one that could be formalised. On the other hand, it makes a great deal of sense for civilised relationships that will at least encourage voters of both parties to think about tactical voting in the future, in constituencies where it would make a critical difference. And there are plenty of them.

Where does Scotland fit into this? For all their rhetoric, the Nationalists have no wish to see Johnson depart any time soon. He is the Tory Prime Minister of their dreams, and of Scottish Tories’ nightmares. Perfectly valid messages about the benefits Scotland gains within the UK constantly have to compete with the Johnson factor.

Scottish politics are conducted on two fronts. Electorally, 40 per cent is enough to give the SNP dominance in Westminster seats but not enough to deliver their reason for existing. The best way to crack that enigma is through a credible prospect of a change in UK government, which would draw widespread support in Scotland.

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There are some signs of movement in this direction, with both Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar making far more effective impressions than their respective predecessors and this beginning to show in polling. But the dichotomy established in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum whereby three separate parties – Tory, Labour and Lib Dem – are effectively pitched against a single constitutional movement is hard to break.

It is always said that Labour’s revival in Scotland is vital to the possibility of a future Labour government in the UK. An alternative option is that a Lib Dem revival in large parts of England, enhancing the prospect of a non-Tory majority, could be the initial key to giving Scotland a UK government that most of us would greatly prefer.

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