Boris Johnson feared the voters of North Shropshire might give him a bloody nose. What he got was more like a punishment beating.
By-elections are notorious for throwing up surprising results. But the seismic shock from this one was off the scale.
After all, this rural constituency epitomised the phrase ‘True Blue’. Hugely pro-Brexit, it is Conservative with a big ‘C’. Indeed, it has returned a Tory MP for all but two of the last 189 years.
Yet its seemingly impregnable 23,000 majority was demolished by the Liberal Democrats on the back of a gargantuan 34 per cent swing – the seventh largest since the Second World War.
DAILY MAIL COMMENT: Boris Johnson feared the voters of North Shropshire might give him a bloody nose. What he got was more like a punishment beating
The greatest tragedy of such an ignominious mauling, however, was that the Prime Minister positively invited it.
A torrent of unforced errors, hypocrisy and impropriety by the Government persuaded appalled voters to desert the Tories in astonishing numbers.
How fortunes turn. Two years ago, Mr Johnson was the darling of his party, having demolished Labour’s Red Wall and served up a thumping 80-seat majority.
The confident talk then was of him going on to win at least two terms. After this drubbing, there are serious doubts he will survive long enough to complete one.
For make no mistake, this was a verdict not on the party, but on its leader.
Firstly, there was anger over his badly misjudged attempt to block the Commons suspension of Owen Paterson for flagrantly breaching lobbying rules.
It looked corrupt, backfired spectacularly and led to Mr Paterson’s resignation – triggering this calamitous by-election.
DAILY MAIL COMMENT: By-elections are notorious for throwing up surprising results. But the seismic shock from this one was off the scale
Then there were lurid headlines over sleaze, wallpaper and illegal lockdown Christmas parties in Downing Street.
And most recently the slow creep back into lockdown, during which Mr Johnson appears to have sub-contracted Covid policy to unelected scientific advisers – with catastrophic results.
Blood-curdling warnings about Omicron have terrified people into cowering at home, prompting struggling shops, pubs and restaurants to shut at what should be their busiest time of the year.
Troublingly, Mr Johnson seems to suggest some of the blame for the ballot box humiliation lies with the electorate for being distracted by lurid headlines.
He’s 100 per cent wrong. The problems lie firmly inside No10, with its disturbingly amateurish operation.
So the Daily Mail has a pungent message for the PM: Urgently address this festering rot and cut out the own goals. Equally, rediscover your Tory instincts.
Millions voted for sound finances, less regulation, more personal freedom, sensible environmentalism, and secure borders. Instead, they got tax-and-spend, draconian lockdowns, a ruinous green agenda, and a Channel taxi service for illegal migrants.
So Mr Johnson must locate the reset button and press it – swiftly.
But we also have a message to mutinous Tory backbenchers: Stop sharpening your knives. A bitter leadership contest while the pandemic rages would be grotesquely self-indulgent. And who is a viable alternative?
For all his faults, Boris remains the Conservatives’ most potent political asset, retaining an almost unique ability to speak to all parts of the country at once.
He stands head and shoulders above Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, a self-confessed socialist who happily fought for Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister, and who would spell disaster for the UK.
Dire as the North Shropshire result is, we are in mid-term, when most governments suffer opinion poll slides.
No one should write Mr Johnson off. He has defied political gravity before. He is a proven winner. If he and his party can work through their differences, he can win again.