Liberal Democrats believe that local anger over underperforming ambulance services may give them an opportunity to win a surprise victory in next week’s North Shropshire by-election to match their shock capture of Chesham and Amersham with a 25-point swing earlier this year.
The rural seat has been solidly Conservative since its creation in 1983 and is up for grabs after Owen Paterson resigned over sleaze allegations.
The Lib Dems were a distant third in 2019, but internal party polling seen by The Independent has given strategists hope that they could be within reach of another breakthrough.
They claim that Boris Johnson’s campaign visit to the constituency on Friday was an indication that the prime minister is “scared of an upset” and said that the loss of the stronghold seat would provoke a “political earthquake” in Downing Street.
Canvassing returns show Lib Dems in a better position among postal voters than at the same point in the Chesham and Amersham campaign, with the gap closing by seven points in the last week alone, they said.
Along with dissatisfaction over the former Tory MP’s involvement in the sleaze scandal – and Mr Johnson’s botched attempt to save him – Ed Davey’s party believes that disgruntlement over the government’s handling of the NHS may turn North Shropshire voters away from the Conservatives ahead of the 16 December ballot.
Shropshire’s council was recently told that the county “ran out” of ambulances at one point last month because all of the emergency vehicles were queuing outside hospitals.
And all four of the county’s community ambulance stations – including Oswestry and Market Drayton in North Shropshire – were closed in October as the West Midlands Ambulance Service concentrated facilities in Shrewsbury and Telford.
National polling conducted for the Lib Dems showed that pressure on ambulance services is more likely to make prospective Tory voters think negatively about the current administration than other NHS-related issues.
The survey by Savanta ComRes found that, when asked which of four issues were most likely to turn them against the Tories, 32 per cent of those who backed the Conservatives in 2019 chose problems with the ambulance service.
Meanwhile, 21 per cent opted for difficulties getting same-day GP appointments, 20 per cent said the closure of rural hospitals and 10 per cent said GP numbers.
The Lib Dems also revealed that all 10 regional NHS ambulance services in England are at the highest level of alert, meaning they are facing “extreme pressure”.
NHS figures showed that waiting times reached a record high in October, with heart attack and stroke victims facing average delays of 55 minutes for an ambulance to turn up.
The party’s health spokesperson Daisy Cooper has proposed a new law to require the government to publish more localised data on ambulance waiting times to help local communities hold ministers to account.
Ms Cooper told The Independent: “Boris Johnson’s government is running local health services into the ground and former Conservative voters in rural areas like North Shropshire feel taken for granted and outright ignored.
“Record-long ambulance waits are leaving vulnerable patients stuck in queues outside hospitals for hours without the treatment they need. People are being left scared, panicked and with worsening symptoms, and in extreme cases dying when they might have been saved.
She added: “This by-election is a chance for people in North Shropshire to send a powerful message to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives that their concerns about overstretched local health services can’t be ignored any longer.
“A victory for the Liberal Democrat candidate Helen Morgan would cause a political earthquake in the heart of Downing Street.”
Mr Paterson held North Shropshire with an overwhelming 63 per cent of the vote in 2019, with Labour on 22 per cent and the Lib Dems just 10.
NHS surgeon Neil Shastri-Hurst is standing for the Conservatives in this month’s by-election, along with Labour’s Ben Wood and candidates for Reform UK, Ukip, the Greens and a string of smaller parties.