If it’s a cliché that the Conservatives can be brutal when dealing with leaders who no longer feel like campaigners, arguably Boris Johnson, whose main attraction for many of his MPs was his appeal to the electorate. When that’s gone, he should be worried.
Your key word is “if”. The Tories’ loss to the North Shropshire Liberal Democrats – one seat they held for only two for the past 189 years – is an undeniable earthquake, but by-elections have particular qualities, not least the greater ability to support the opposition to one to bundle party.
However, they often contain broader lessons for governments, even the medium-term ones, who at the best of times could expect a kick from the electorate.
What will alarm Johnson’s advisors are the many reports from North Shropshire of not only angering the government, but also a fairly significant and personal dislike of the Prime Minister.
This was a recurring theme in the last major by-election story, the overthrow of a 16,000-strong Tory majority by the Liberal Democrats in Chesham and Amersham in June, but here at least part of it could be explained by liberal, internationalist conservatism in the affluent commuter -Belt seat.
North Shropshire is very different: largely rural and strong for Brexit. But here too, voters complained that the Tories took it for granted, but also a feeling that Johnson was slippery and not serious enough.
So some Conservative MPs will wake up on Friday with two calculations in mind. First, if your party could lose a seat by a majority of nearly 23,000, what would such a turnaround mean for you? And if voters don’t like the Prime Minister in both Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire, where exactly is he popular?
One consolation for Downing Street is that such mutinous thoughts are largely not discussed with fellow MPs as the Commons Christmas break has begun, ending perhaps the most politically damaging week of Johnson’s career.
It involved an accumulation of scathing publicity over two rolling stories: a series of reports of alleged lockdown-breaching parties on Downing Street, Conservative HQ, and government departments; and the prospect of further revelations about how Johnson paid for the costly renovation of his official home.
Amid it all, Johnson led the response to a huge wave of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 that required the introduction of his Plan B set of restrictions, including a return to home work, continued mask use, and the introduction of mandatory Covid certificates to enter venues such as night clubs and soccer fields.
The latter plan was hugely unpopular with many Tory MPs, 99 of whom rebelled in a vote in the Commons on Tuesday, questioning both Johnson’s authority and his ability to tighten Covid rules further if the Omicron wave such as many public health experts predict worsening.
Some Tories will find that the North Shropshire campaign would always be difficult for the government as it was led to do so by resigning former Environment Minister Owen Paterson, who broke the rules of paid lobbying.
But even this situation, many will believe, was mishandled by Johnson and his advisors. Paterson only resigned after Downing Street made an attempt to save him from punishment by trying to unilaterally rewrite the entire disciplinary system for MPs, which sparked tons of stories of lobbying and second jobs.
Conversely, if Johnson had urged Paterson to quietly serve the 30-day suspension imposed as a punishment, this week would have been over and the Prime Minister may have gone into Christmas happier.