North Shropshire wasn’t a normal by-election. This was Boris Johnson’s referendum. It was a referendum that the Prime Minister lost. Catastrophically.

The Great Winner — the Tory politician who could reach voters other Tories couldn’t, who was elected (twice!) as mayor of Labour-leaning London, who won the Brexit referendum against the odds, who consigned Jeremy Corbyn to the dustbin of history with a landslide victory over Labour two years ago — is suddenly the Great Loser.

Leader of the Tory Party who turned a 23,000 strong majority into a remarkable Liberal Democrat lead with 6,000.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been warned he is in 'last orders time' after the Liberal Democrats overturned a massive Tory majority to win the North Shropshire by-election

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has been told he’s in the ‘last orders’ time after the Liberal Democrats defeated a large Tory majority and won the North Shropshire By-election

Boris did it all on his own. Boris is responsible for this mess. The third biggest swing — 34 per cent — against the Tories in a by-election since World War II. 

That man is a great guy. Even he admits he has to take ‘personal responsibility’ for the defeat.

I’ve seen many governments come a cropper over great policy issues — Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax, Tony Blair and Iraq, David Cameron and Brexit — but this is the first time I’ve ever witnessed a government brought low by unnecessary, self-inflicted nonsense.

It is also the underlying reason why so many Tories are so angry with the PM — angry enough for thousands of them to vote Lib Dem or stay at home on Thursday.

They understood they could not pick a government. They wanted to convey a message that Boris could not ignore.

There would never have been a by-election in the first place if Boris hadn’t listened to a bunch of Tory toffs who urged him over dinner in the snooty, all-male Garrick club to intervene to save their mate (and North Shropshire MP) Owen Paterson from the punishment he deserved — a 30-day suspension from Parliament — for lobbying on behalf of companies whose pay he was in.

But Boris thought it would be a great wheeze — the sort of jolly jape they used to get up to as students in the Oxford Union — to do their bidding and save one of their own.

North Shropshire by-election winner Helen Morgan of the Liberal Democrats, makes her acceptance speech at Shrewsbury Sports Centre on December 17

Helen Morgan (Liberal Democrats) is the North Shropshire winner of by-elections. She makes her acceptance speech on December 17 at Shrewsbury Sports Centre

To do this, he even offered to demolish the whole structure of standards and procedures for parliament.

However, this joke proved disastrously costly. Boris had to retreat from humiliating defeat after he was confronted by MPs representing all political parties. Paterson had no other choice but to quit.

You should think. If Boris had stayed out of the Paterson imbroglio — which as PM he should have — and Paterson had taken his punishment on the chin, his suspension would be over and the good people of North Shropshire would have woken up yesterday morning in a safe Tory-held constituency with Paterson still their MP.

Boris instead awoke to the most serious crisis of his leadership.

The Paterson saga has played into festering concerns about Tory cronyism, sleaze, cover ups — above all about one rule for the Tory elite, another rule for the rest of us.

These were the stories of Tory HQ and Downing Street parties that took place last year when the country wasn’t in lockdown.

The never-ending saga of who paid to refurbish the Prime Minister’s flat resurfaced.

Wallpapergate, partygate, more partygate — to each scandal Boris responded with his familiar mixture of bluster, dissembling and untruths.

His inability to tell the truth was apparent, even when he could have gotten the point across with an honest explanation.

But then Boris has always used bluster and dissembling whenever he’s been in trouble.

As he tried to escape a narrow corner, Truth was often a stranger. Why not? Because it’s always worked in the past.

Helen Morgan and Tim Farron of the Liberal Demcrats speak to the media following victory in the North Shropshire by-election

After their victory in North Shropshire’s by-election, Helen Morgan and Tim Farron from the Liberal Demcrats spoke to the media

Until now. Even Tory voters are sick of his nonsense. I’m not surprised. These are dark times.

This pandemic enters its third year. This latest version is all over the country.

There is a chance of another Christmas under lockdown. Economic recovery has stalled.

Voters don’t think for themselves. Voters know that Covid is a problem for governments around the globe.

They’re just looking for some quiet competence, a seriousness of purpose, a sense of direction to get us through the nightmare, politicians that can be trusted even if they don’t always get it right. Leadership is a simple word.

The lack of all of the above gave us this week’s result in North Shropshire. It’s a turning point for the Prime Minster.

Boris Johnson’s support in the Tory Party has always been skin-deep. Boris Johnson’s support isn’t found on the backbenches of the country or among the activists.

Tories don’t have a Johnsonian group of core beliefs that they can rally around, just as Therecherism did. Johnsonian ideology transcends opportunism. He doesn’t have many friends who will rally around him.

Truth be told, many Tories can’t stand him. He was a winner, so they supported him.

It’s unlikely Brexiteers would have won the 2016 referendum without him. He rose from the despair of Theresa May’s government to lead the Tories in a two-year victory, consolidating his legacy as a winner.

Many Tory MPs felt that they owed him their seats, particularly Red Wall Tories from the north.

But if the overwhelming basis of your support is being a winner, it evaporates fast when you’re perceived as a loser, a liability. This is exactly what Tories view him to be.

They haven’t given up on him entirely . . . yet. It is obvious that Tory self-indulgence at its worst would make it difficult to lead in the face of another pandemic wave. Their hopes are still high that Boris will change.

He will increase his Downing Street staff with experienced, authoritative and reputable people; and he will act as a leader with both the gravity of his job and the seriousness that the times require.

It isn’t just the continuing pandemic or the slowing economy. In 2022 the world is going to be very dangerous. Russian President Putin is currently occupying 175,000 troops at the Ukrainian border.

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary told me that Putin is expected to invade this week.

China is mounting military ‘dress rehearsals’ for the invasion of Taiwan. U.S. intelligence and Israeli intelligence believe Iran is just weeks from being able to create a nuclear weapon.

If ever there was a need for competence, focus, experience, authority and purpose — with all frippery banished — it is now.

People who believe Boris Johnson has the potential to succeed cite how he became mayor of London, despite a difficult start. Perhaps. But I’m not holding my breath.

I never really thought Mr Johnson was fit to be prime minister — though I did recognise he was a winner.

He might be the one to grow in this job, but I was hopeful. After all, he is not stupid and being PM has been his life’s purpose.

There have been times during the Covid crisis when he’s shown some of the qualities required.

But more often it’s been the same old Boris, bumbling from pillar to post, hoping some threadbare jokes or comments about Peppa Pig can deflect from the trouble he’s in.

In North Shropshire, he ran out of roads. It’s not clear what better news in the months ahead could come to his rescue.

Even with the successful rollout, this pandemic will be around for some time. It’s already slowing down the economy.

The first half of next year is likely to be marked by low growth and high inflation — what we used to call stagflation.

As rising costs cause pay rises to stagnate, this would lead to a reduction in standard of living. It is usually fatal for governments when the cost of living becomes the main focus.

Boris’s risk is obvious. Suppose Labour’s new lead in the polls is consolidated in the months ahead. Let’s say that the Tories lose the May local election. These two events would consolidate his position as the Great Loser.

It would unnerve Tory MPs on small majorities who’d previously regarded him as the key to their success.

It would embolden those who’ve never liked him anyway. It could encourage people who are upset about him.

This would mean that it could open the doors to a summer leader contest. Expect the runners and riders — from Rishi Sunak to Liz Truss to Priti Patel — to start lining up from early in the new year.