Lib Dems aim to 'send a shiver down PM's spine' with by-election upset

More trouble for Boris Johnson? Polls close in the North Shropshire by-election with the Lib Dems hoping to ‘send a shiver down his spine’ and deepen Tory woe with a win in former safe seat of disgraced ex-minister Owen Paterson

  • Result with show level of public anger at Tories over partygate and sleaze
  • Mr Paterson held the seat with a huge majority of almost 23,000 in 2019
  • But the Liberal Democrats believe they are in with a shout of winning 

Boris Johnson faces an anxious wait tonight to see if his leadership crisis will deepen, as polls close in the North Shropshire by-election.

The battle for the former seat of disgraced ex-minister Owen Paterson will show just how damaged the Prime Minister has been by the chaos of the past few weeks.

Mr Paterson, who quit the Commons after being censured for lobbying, held the seat for the Conservatives with a huge majority of almost 23,000 in 2019. 

But it was the bungled attempt by No10 to allow him to avoid punishment – eventually prompting his resignation – that triggered the PM’s current crisis.

The Liberal Democrats believe they are in with a shout of winning in an area where they were previously a distant third. The betting has the two parties neck and neck.

A win by Lib Dem Helen Morgan would be calamitous for Mr Johnson, enflaming the already incendiary anger of backbenchers already deeply unhappy at further Covid restrictions. 

Even a tight win for the Tory candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst would suggest the deep anger of the public about allegations of lockdown rule-breaking within Downing Street. 

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokeswoman Christine Jardine said there was ‘real anger’ at the Prime Minister, adding: ‘If we get a strong result here tonight in a rural Conservative safe seat, it will send a shiver down Boris Johnson’s spine.’

The battle for the former seat of disgraced ex-minister Owen Paterson will show just how damaged the Prime Minister has been by the chaos of the past few weeks.

The Liberal Democrats believe they are in with a shout of winning in an area where they were previously a distant third. The betting has the two parties neck and neck.

Even a tight win for the Tory candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst would suggest the deep anger of the public about allegations of lockdown rule-breaking within Downing Street.

A win by Lib Dem Helen Morgan would be calamitous for Mr Johnson, enflaming the already incendiary anger of backbenchers already deeply unhappy at further Covid restrictions.

Boris accused of attending ANOTHER lockdown party 

Boris Johnson has been accused of attending yet another lockdown-busting party – this time just a month after his battle with Covid during the nation’s first lockdown.

The Prime Minister reportedly joined up to 20 members of Downing Street staff inside and in the gardens of No. 10 during a late-spring celebration that featured beer, wine and pizza on May 15, 2020.

Hours earlier, the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock hosted a press conference in which he revealed 384 people had died of Covid – before later heading to Downing Street’s gardens for a ‘debrief’ with the Prime Minister.

At the gathering, Mr Johnson allegedly told one civil servant, who was drinking alcohol, that he deserved his drink for his work in helping to ‘beat back the virus’, reports the Independent.

Sources indicted those in attendance had planned celebratory drinks in advance of the event, with alcohol being poured at desks and staffers staying late into the night. There is no suggestion that Mr Johnson or Mr Hancock drank alcohol or stayed late.

At the time of the latest alleged infraction, the mixing of multiple households indoors was banned and groups could only meet one-on-one in outdoor settings.

Thursday marked the latest twist in the long-running saga of Downing Street being accused of hosting a string of lockdown-busting parties in spite of the draconian restrictions they themselves set.

 

‘Helen Morgan ran a fantastic campaign against a Conservative party which has taken people in North Shropshire for granted. There is real anger at Boris Johnson’s Government which is completely out of touch with the country.

‘If the Conservative Party lose significant numbers of votes tonight in one of their safest seats in the country, there will be countless Conservative MPs looking over their shoulders nervously tomorrow. This seat has returned a Conservative MP since 1830.’ 

Not only was the vote triggered by a Tory sleaze scandal, it comes after the Prime Minister was battered by allegations of lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street last Christmas.

Mr Johnson faced new allegations about parties tonight. 

The Guardian and The Independent reported that Boris Johnson was present for 15 minutes at the gathering following a Covid press conference on May 15 2020.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police said it will make contact with two people who attended a gathering organised by Shaun Bailey’s London mayoral campaign at the Conservative Party HQ in London on December 14 2020 in relation to alleged breaches of coronavirus regulations.

Mr Bailey has apologised ‘unreservedly’ for the event and quit his role chairing the London Assembly’s police and crime committee after pictures of the event were published in the Daily Mirror.

In response to the latest claims about the Prime Minister, Downing Street said Mr Johnson ‘briefly’ met then health secretary Matt Hancock and his team in the garden, which was ‘regularly’ used for work meetings during the summer months.

According to the Guardian and Independent’s sources, around 20 staff drank wine and spirits and ate pizza following the press conference at which Mr Hancock had told the British public to stay at home ‘as much as is possible’ and stressed the rules in force meant ‘you can meet one other person from outside your household in an outdoor, public place’ as long as you kept two metres apart.

The Prime Minister is alleged to have told one aide that they deserved a drink for ‘beating back’ coronavirus.

Additionally he was handed a massive rebellion on Tuesday over his new coronavirus restrictions as the Omicron variant surged.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak will return earlier than planned from a work trip to California to hold crunch talks with hospitality chiefs amid mounting warnings over the impact of Omicron on the nation’s pubs, bars and restaurants.

Mr Sunak is currently in the US on ‘long-planned’ Government business but the timing of the trip has prompted criticism as the coronavirus variant wreaks havoc on the UK economy.

He is now returning on an earlier than anticipated flight to hold further discussions with firms tomorrow after engaging in talks remotely this afternoon.

The Chancellor said he understood that ‘this is a very concerning time for businesses up and down the country’ as he pledged to ‘continue to work with them over the coming days’.

The hospitality sector is demanding the Government bring forward fresh financial support after the spread of the variant and the latest Covid advice to be cautious ahead of Christmas prompted a wave of booking cancellations. 

Pubs and restaurants have now started closing early for Christmas after they were hit by a ‘double whammy’ of staff absences and plummeting consumer confidence.

Some restaurants said they had ‘no option’ but to shut because so many of their staff have caught coronavirus and have had to isolate amid fears the problem will worsen as the ‘tidal wave’ of infections surges across the country. 

Mr Paterson represented the constituency for 24 years until his resignation after the Prime Minister’s botched attempt to shield him from a 30-day suspension.

Mr Johnson attempted to force a Tory-led review of the rules for MPs after Mr Paterson was found to have breached lobbying rules for two companies paying him £100,000 a year.

Multiple fresh allegations of sleaze were levelled at the Tories during the row and ultimately the MP was forced to resign, saying he wanted to escape the ‘cruel world of politics’.

North Shropshire has returned a Tory MP in every vote since 1983, which was the constituency’s first election in its current form.

But the area has been true blue, only twice voting for another colour, since the Conservative Party’s inception in 1830.

In the 2019 general election, the Tories won 62.7 per cent of the vote and held the seat with a majority of 22,949 over Labour, with the Lib Dems in third. 

Bookmakers have put the Lib Dems narrow favourites for victory, while campaigners on the ground believe the result is too close to call and leader Sir Ed Davey described it as a ‘coin toss’.

Defeat would compound a torrid period for Mr Johnson after 100 Conservatives defied the leadership to vote against the introduction of mandatory Covid health passes for entry to large venues – the biggest rebellion since he entered No 10.

Asked on Wednesday if Mr Johnson would quit if North Shropshire falls, the Prime Minister’s press secretary said: ‘We are fighting for every vote.’

The result is expected to be announced in the early hours of Friday.

Some aides reportedly carried on drinking into the evening, although there was no suggestion Mr Johnson or Mr Hancock had any alcohol or stayed late.

A No 10 spokesman said: ‘In the summer months Downing Street staff regularly use the garden for some meetings.

‘On May 15 2020 the Prime Minister held a series of meetings throughout the afternoon, including briefly with the then health and care secretary and his team in the garden following a press conference.

‘The Prime Minister went to his residence shortly after 7pm.

‘A small number of staff required to be in work remained in the Downing Street garden for part of the afternoon and evening.’

Hannah Brady, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice whose father died from the virus the day after the alleged event, said the reports made her sick.

She said that she met the PM some months later, when she showed him a photo of her father in hospital, taken on the day of the reported gathering.

‘The Prime Minister looked me in the eye and told me he’d ‘done everything he could’ to protect my Dad. It’s disgusting,’ she said.

Labour’s Fleur Anderson, the shadow paymaster general, said: ‘It seems that from the very beginning of this awful pandemic the Prime Minister was setting a culture of disregarding the laws he was applying to the rest of us.

‘People have made immense sacrifice during this crisis. It is starting to look like the Prime Minister has only dithered, partied and eroded public trust.

‘As is always the case with Boris Johnson, it’s one rule for him, and one rule for the rest of us.’  

Met Police to finally act against two people who attended Tory HQ Christmas party after photo showed staffers and London mayor candidate Shaun Bailey crammed into a room – but officers still WON’T probe No10 bash

The Met Police has announced it will speak to two attendees of the lockdown-busting party hosted at the Tory Party Headquarters last December.

The force, which has faced stinging criticism from some over a perceived lack of action regarding investigations into alleged gatherings at Downing Street, announced the news on Thursday evening. 

It comes after pictures showed a rule-breaking event for Shaun Bailey’s mayoral campaign took place inside the party’s Westminster HQ on December 14, 2020.

Several hours earlier, then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock had announced London would move into Tier 3 restrictions – meaning the mixing of separate households indoors was strictly prohibited.

Members of Downing Street staff joined the party, which included dancing into the early hours of the morning, despite London’s Covid rules barring indoor socialising at the time. 

Mr Bailey bowed to pressure after a week of intense demands for him to quit, and four staff members have been disciplined over the ‘raucous’ gathering, in which a door was reported to have been damaged.

Pictures showed a rule-breaking event for Shaun Bailey’s mayoral campaign took place inside the party’s Westminster HQ on December 14, 2020

 Ex-mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has quit as chairman of the London Assembly’s police and crime committee following revelations of a Chistmas gathering he attended last year, in breach of Covid regulations

An image taken on the night last December shows Mr Bailey, 50, standing in the middle of a crowd of some 24 people huddled closely together at Conservative Party HQ with platters of food nearby. 

Mr Bailey, who is teetotal, is understood to have left the party early in the evening, shortly after the picture was taken. 

Eight days after the gathering, he took to Twitter to urge people to follow the rules, saying the restrictions were ‘tough on every Londoner’. 

Labour, Lib Dem and Green Party politicians on the London Assembly have written to Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick to demand an investigation. 

None of the partygoers are pictured wearing masks and some of them including billionaire Tory donor Nick Candy are seen raising their drinks to toast the night; while millions of Londoners were forced to self-isolate in line with Tier 2 restrictions.

At the time Britain was in the grip of a second lockdown, and London later in Tier 3 restrictions, with all indoor social gatherings banned unless they involved a single household bubble. 

Despite widespread outcry – as millions of families were kept apart amid rising case numbers last year – the Met chief Cressida DIck told a phone-in on LBC radio that her force would not be investigating any alleged parties. 

But the Met today said it has received a ‘significant amount of correspondence relating to allegations’ that the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations were breached at Downing Street in November and December 2020. 

A string of parties attended by politicians in November and December 2020 are currently being investigated by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. 

If any evidence arises from the Cabinet Office’s inquiry that shows actions that could be deemed to have been criminal offences, that will be passed onto Scotland Yard. 

In a public statement, a spokesperson for the Met said: ‘The Met has received a significant amount of material in relation to the allegations reported in the media. 

‘All the material has been considered by detectives in detail and it does not provide evidence of a breach of the Health Protection Regulations, but restates allegations made in the media.  

‘The Met is also aware of a gathering at an address in Matthew Parker Street, SW1 on 14 December 2020.

‘Officers will be making contact with two people who attended in relation to alleged breaches of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations.

The Met, which has faced stinging criticism from some over a perceived lack of action regarding investigations into alleged gatherings at Downing Street, announced it will interview two attendees of the lockdown-busting party hosted at the Tory Party HQ

‘In line with our policy where we do not normally investigate breaches of these regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place, unless there is evidence from the Cabinet Office or other evidence comes to light, the Met will not at this time commence an investigation.’  

Speaking to MailOnline’s Dan Wootton on GB News last night, Mr Bailey apologised for attending the party and called it ‘an error of judgement’.

But he then insisted the group was ‘in a workplace bubble’ and that he was only there to collect paperwork before going for an interview with BBC Newsnight. 

He claimed he was only there to pose for the photo, but said he regretted not telling his colleagues that they were ‘going too far’. 

‘The first thing to say is I want to start with an apology, whatever happens it was an error of judgement,’ he told GB News.

‘I want to own that. I had a young team, they had been working very hard for months at a time, and I came back from an event and they were there all set up ready to go. And I spoke to them and then we took the infamous photo.

‘I wish at that point I’d said ”hold on a second, we’re straying here, we’re going too far”, but I didn’t, and I want to own that because yes I had senior members of my team, but it is my team and I should have owned that. I just want to take that on board.

‘The other thing to say is that we were in a workplace bubble, we were working together, it felt quite natural.’ 

A Conservative Party spokesman said: ‘Senior CCHQ staff became aware of an unauthorised social gathering in the basement of [CCHQ] organised by the Bailey campaign on the evening of 14th December.

‘Formal disciplinary action was taken against the four CCHQ staff who were seconded to the Bailey campaign.’

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