Polls have opened in North Shropshire for voters to elect a replacement for the disgraced former Tory MP Owen Paterson, who resigned after being found to have breached parliamentary lobbying rules.
People in the rural constituency began casting their votes from 7am on Thursday in what is expected to be a close-run byelection between the incumbent Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
Polling stations close at 10pm and a result is not expected until the early hours of Friday. There had been speculation that growing concerns about the Omicron Covid variant and poor weather could diminish voter turnout.
The byelection was triggered when Paterson resigned following the lobbying scandal in which Boris Johnson attempted to prevent the MP’s suspension from parliament.
The former minister was found to have committed “egregious” breaches of lobbying rules by the standards commissioner, as well as using his parliamentary office to meet private clients and sending letters using House of Commons-headed paper on behalf of the companies in question.
North Shropshire has been held by the Conservatives since it was re-established in 1983 and Paterson – who first won the seat in 1997 – secured a majority of almost 23,000 in 2019, before stepping down on 4 November this year. Its “true blue” roots date as far back as the original iteration of the seat in the 1830s.
But the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning hard in the constituency and hope to capitalise on the burning issue of sleaze. It had even been suggested that opposition parties could put forward one anti-sleaze candidate, but that never materialised.
As the polls opened on Thursday morning, campaigners were describing the constituency as “too close to call”, while others claimed a Tory defeat would be an “absolute disaster” for the beleaguered prime minister.
As is often the way with byelections, increased media focus brings an increased number of candidates on the ballot paper – 14 in this case. Bookmakers predict a two-horse race between the Tory candidate, Neil Shastri-Hurst, and Helen Morgan of the Lib Dems.
The Labour candidate Ben Wood is also standing, with political commentators watching closely to scrutinise any effects of potential tactical voting. But despite talk of a “gentleman’s agreement” not to split the Lib Dem vote, Labour frontbenchers including the deputy leader, Angela Rayner, visited the constituency this week in support of their party’s candidate.
Source: The Guardian