North Shropshire By-Election: Has the market over-estimated Tory troubles?

This article first appeared at on 14th December 2021

I will say it again. There really is nothing quite like a British by-election! The speculation and rumours are made for betting drama and the experts are frequently wrong.

Remember Chesham and Amersham, where the Tories were [1.1] before losing by a 20% margin? Or Batley and Spen, where they were [1.25] before Labour held the seat? Throughout the years, we have come to expect such betting chaos.

What’s the explanation? Polling firms rarely survey these contests, leaving us reliant on party propaganda and rumours. The dynamics are completely different to general elections. Voters are happier to register a mid-term protest. Turnout is often low and motivation highly differential.

With those caveats in mind, let’s try to navigate North Shropshire. A race that has already seen plenty of betting drama.

Lib Dem odds-on after monster gamble

A month ago, I earmarked a potential upset for the Lib Dems at [4.3]. 48 hours out, they are red-hot favourites at [1.59] to pull off an upset that could seriously destabilise Boris Johnson.

The obvious explanation is Johnson’s implosion. It started with the corruption scandal that triggered the resignation of Owen Paterson and this by-election. It worsened with the PM’s ‘Peppa Pig speech’ to the CBI and then ‘PartyGate’ pushed the Tories into full-blown crisis.

National polls have swung against the Tories, with Labour now leading by up to 9%, across the range of firms. As discussed last week, the odds about an early Johnson exit have crashed.

All of which builds a strong argument that Tory voters in this rural constituency will either be prepared to defect to the Lib Dems – past masters of capitalising in such mid-term scenarios – or stay at home.

Huge turnaround required on 2019

This, however, is surely factored into the transformed betting and it would be wise at this juncture to remind ourselves of the scale of the Lib Dems’ task. At the 2019 General Election, they finished third on a meagre 10%.

Paterson was re-elected with 62.7%. In 2017, he won 60.5%. He held the seat in all three Labour victories from 1997-2005, never falling below 40%. The highest Lib Dem share was 20.9% in 2010, and they finished below Labour in all the rest.

Looking back further, the race for second was frequently close. The Lib Dems were second during the Thatcher/Major years, peaking with 31.6% in 1983.

Lib/Lab rivalry could thwart tactical voting

That sideshow may be more relevant to Thursday’s outcome than first appears. The theory behind a Lib Dem upset here involves the Labour vote collapsing in their favour, as occurred in Chesham and Amersham. Using the sort of dubious spin for which their constituency campaigns are famous, the Lib Dems released these internal numbers that seemed to confirm that tactical trend.

Labour, however, hit back with their own internal polling, telling a very different story.

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