While campaigns are normally fought from disused shop units or cramped offices, Helen Morgan is masterminding her tilt at the North Shropshire by-election from an impressive barn conversion in the grounds of Soulton Hall, an ancient manor house now a luxury hotel and wedding venue.
It is her second attempt at the seat. At the 2019 General Election she came in third place, with a 10 per cent share of the vote, almost 7,000 votes behind Labour’s Graeme Currie who took second place.
But with bookies now offering odds as short as 7-2 on a Liberal Democrat win, Mrs Morgan reckons there is everything to play for. Already there has been a minor war of words between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with both parties claiming to be the only challenger in a two-horse race.
The Liberal Democrats are certainly throwing all they have got at the seat. Party leader Sir Ed Davey has visited the constituency no fewer than three times since the election was called, with former leader Tim Farron also putting in an appearance.
“The people of North Shropshire want a local person who will make sure we are getting a fair deal,” she says. “They have been promised all sorts over the years. They have been calling for the dualling of the A5 for 25 years, but it has never happened. They feel they are being taken for granted.”
Mrs Morgan, a 46-year-old mother-of-one, moved to her home in Harmer Hill, near Wem, almost eight years ago. She was born and raised in Stone, Staffordshire, before moving to Buckinghamshire.
A Cambridge-educated accountant, she joined the Liberal Democrats in 2016, initially delivering leaflets and gradually becoming more involved in the party. During the pandemic she set up a support group in her village, collecting food and supplies for people who were either shielding or self-isolating. “The more you get involved, the more you listen to people. When you get involved in local politics, you understand what the issues and priorities are.”
Mrs Morgan says top of the list of her priorities is the difficulty people are having in getting an appointment with their GP, which she says is also creating pressures on hospital emergency services, and in turn having a knock-on effect on ambulance waiting times.
“We have got a government that all the time promises us this many more GPs, but we’re way off that target,” she says. “This election is an opportunity to send them a message of not being happy with their broken promises. We have now got more people and 10 per cent fewer doctors, that’s having a big knock-on effect in our health service.”
The Government would no doubt point out that training or recruiting new GPs is not something that can be achieved overnight, but Mrs Morgan says there is a need for more creative thinking to ease the shortage in the immediate term.
“The Government needs to come up with more innovative ideas. A lot of GPs are retiring, or working part time. We need to come up with incentives to encourage them to come out of retirement, or to do more hours.”
She says farmers have also been getting a raw deal, particularly with regards to the trade deals struck by the Government with Australia and New Zealand.
“The Government promised our farmers they would have access to global markets, but then they got stitched up in their own country with trade deals that encourage imports of meat that is not produced to the same standards,” says Mrs Morgan.
“Lamb produced in New Zealand isn’t produced to the same environmental and welfare standards as our British lamb, but they want to import it here, undercutting our farmers.”
If she is successful in overturning Mr Paterson’s huge 22,000-vote majority, it will be not so much a shock as an earthquake. Mrs Morgan points out that the same could be said about the by-election in Chesham and Amersham in April this year, which saw the her party take the Tory stronghold with a swing of more than 25 per cent.
“We doubled our vote in 2019, while the Labour vote went down,” she says, although Labour would point out that it still got twice the number of votes as the Lib Dems.
“In the local elections we came second by a very clear margin.
“I’m confident we can turn it around and bring about a shock in the by-election.”
The difference between this by-election and the one in Buckinghamshire, though, is that North Shropshire voted 60-40 to leave the EU. Is this most eurosceptic area, represented by arch-Brexiteer Owen Paterson for nearly a quarter of a century, really ready to back the most pro-European of the major parties?
“It would be disingenuous to say we are going to win at this stage, but the experience in Chesham & Amersham shows we can get a very good result,” she says.
And the Liberal Democrats – or at least their predecessors the Whigs – are the only party other than the Tories to have had an MP in North Shropshire. In 1832 John Cotes came second in a poll to elect two MPs.
If Mrs Morgan does take the seat this time, her place in history will be assured.