The Liberal Democrats have won the North Shropshire by-election in a sharp repudiation of Boris Johnson from a seat previously held by the Conservative party for nearly 200 years.
Lib Dem candidate Helen Morgan overturned a Tory majority of nearly 23,000 to win by 5,925 votes.
The sprawling rural seat along the Welsh border voted strongly for Brexit in 2016 and under normal circumstances Conservative candidate Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst would have expected to canter to victory.
However, amid mounting anger at reports of parties and quizzes held in No 10 Downing Street during lockdown, thousands of voters in North Shropshire deserted the Conservative party.
"Tonight, the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people. They have said loudly and clearly, 'Boris Johnson, the party is over,' Ms Morgan said at the count.
"Your government, run on lies and bluster, will be held accountable. It will be scrutinised, it will be challenged and it can and will be defeated."
Liberal Democrats WIN North Shropshire. This is a stunning victory in what was one of the safest Conservative seats in the country.
This sends a clear message to Boris Johnson: The party is over.
Congratulations Helen Morgan MP and thank you to all our volunteers and members! pic.twitter.com/i6L5fRNR5l
— Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) December 17, 2021
The swing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats was 34.2% - the seventh biggest in a by-election since the Second World War - and is the second Tory loss to the Lib Dems this year; in June the party lost the Chesham and Amersham by-election.
'A referendum' on Boris Johnson
Veteran MP Sir Roger Gale told the BBC that the result showed that Boris Johnson needs to up his game:
“This has to be seen as a referendum on the Prime Minister's performance and I think that the Prime Minister is now in 'last orders' time.
"Two strikes already, one earlier this week in the vote [on vaccine passports] in the Commons and now this. One more strike and he's out."
Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden said the Government would take on board the concerns of Shropshire voters:
"I know that the voters of North Shropshire are fed up and they wanted to give us a kicking... We've heard that message loud and clear."
However, he cautioned reading into the result too much:
"I don't think this amounts to a sea-change."
The Liberal Democrats have a long tradition of winning by-elections mid-term; the party won the Richmond Park by-election in 2016 - only for the Tories to wrest the seat back in the General Election six months later.
Similarly, the party won the 2019 Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, only to lose it to the Conservatives in the General Election later that year.
The North Shropshire by-election was called following the resignation of Owen Paterson, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mr Paterson was found in October by a parliamentary committee to have broken rules around lobbying and was set to be suspended as an MP.
The Government initially tried to change the rules to spare him punishment; however, following a public outcry, Downing Street u-turned.
Mr Paterson, who maintains that the investigation into his lobbying played a major role in his wife’s suicide in 2020, decided to resign as an MP, saying he wanted to lead a life "outside the cruel world of politics".
Main image: Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves following a visit to the Lakeland Forum vaccination centre in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. Picture by: PA.