Owen Paterson might have been served his 30 day suspension for breaching lobbying regulations and could be, in parallel universes, back in the Commons serving as the MP for North Shropshire’s ultra-safe Tory constituency.

Instead of Mr Paterson resigning in disgrace the Conservatives conjured up to lose the seat the Liberal Democrats. Backbench Tory MPs openly warn that Boris Johnson could be forced out of office if he makes a mistake.

The Tories are in serious trouble due to their by-election defeat, even if they compare with other governments that have suffered mid-term blues. 

Christchurch, 1993 was the last time that the Tories saw a swing greater than 30% to the Lib Dems. Historiographers will recall that the Labour landslide decimated the party at the subsequent general election.

Conservative MPs are now questioning whether Johnson is really the man they need to guide them to the next election because of his self-inflicted wound.

The scale of the Shropshire by-election defeat is dire for the Tories, even by the standards of governments suffering mid-term blues. The last time the Tories suffered a swing of more than 30 per cent to the Lib Dems was in Christchurch in 1993. But it is the self-inflicted nature of the wound that is causing Conservative MPs to ponder whether Boris Johnson really is the right man to lead them into the next election

The Tories’ Shropshire By-election loss is a disaster, even by government standards. In 1993, Christchurch was the last time that the Tories experienced a more than 30% swing to the Lib Dems. Conservative MPs have begun to question whether Boris Johnson, the self-inflicted wound, is what is making them doubt their ability to win the next election.

Without Mr Paterson’s failed attempt to save him, there wouldn’t have likely been a by-election. If the Conservatives had attempted to alter Parliament’s sleaze regulations, they would not likely have faced the tsunami of accusations over poor behaviour which cost them support by thousands of Shropshire Tories.

A senior Tory spent time in the constituency and claimed that claims about lockdown-busting parties at No 10 had caused molten anger among the residents of Oswestry, Market Drayton. ‘We had a good candidate – people thought he was a nice guy – but they are p***** off with us,’ the source said.

“It was just party,party,party on the doorstep. It got worse after the video of No. 10 people laughing just before it was over.

‘They are Tories, it’s a Tory seat – and if we can get our act together we can win it back – but they want competent government… and they don’t feel they are getting that at the moment.’

By now Owen Paterson (above) could have served his 30-day suspension for breaking lobbying rules and, in a parallel universe, be back in the Commons as MP for the ultra-safe Tory seat of North Shropshire. Instead, Mr Paterson has resigned in disgrace, the Conservatives have contrived to lose the seat to the Liberal Democrats and backbench Tory MPs are openly warning that Boris Johnson is 'one strike' away from being forced from office

Owen Paterson (above), could be serving his suspension of 30 days for violating lobbying rules. In a parallel universe, he would have returned to the Commons and been elected MP for North Shropshire. Instead of Mr Paterson resigning in disgrace the Conservatives contrived the loss to the Liberal Democrats. And backbench Tory members are warning Boris Johnson that he is only one strike away from being removed from office

Tory MPs have been equally negative about the Government’s recent performance. One backbencher complained: ‘We’ve had an Advent calendar of s*** from No 10. Every day another door opens and more s*** pours out.’

Some – admittedly Remainer allies of former PM Theresa May – are in open revolt.

Yesterday Sir Roger Gale disclosed that he had written a letter of confidence in Mr Johnson, declaring it to be ‘last orders time.’ Ruth Davidson was another Boris critic. She said that Mr Johnson had been notified by his MPs. “They want a little bloody grip to be exercised,” she stated.

However, most backbenchers agreed yesterday with Sir Charles Walker’s measured assessment. Walker warned that it would be “completely self-indulgent” to make Britain’s next Covid crisis a leader contest. 

He stated, “If you continue making unforced errors for the next three to six or nine months it will get much more severe.”

Helen Morgan of the Liberal Democrats following her victory in the North Shropshire by-election on Friday

Helen Morgan, Liberal Democrats after her win in North Shropshire By-Elections on Friday

Many MPs saw next May’s local election as an opportunity to challenge the leadership. “He has six months,” said a former minister to the Cabinet.

People need to view government competence as the minimum. The debilitating damage he has done to himself must be eliminated. However, poll ratings also matter. It is becoming more common for people to start to work out what this all means for them. He could also be pushed to the curb if there’s a violence at local elections.

Many MPs think the PM is capable of righting the ship. Some loyalties still remain for his win in 2019, and it is widely recognized that he is one of the most shrewd politicians of his generation.

Nearly everyone wants him to get rid of the dysfunctional No 10 team. After this week’s revolt by 100 Tory MPs over Covid restrictions (Covid restriction), many people want to see the whips removed.

Many believe there needs to be a more extensive reshuffle. But there are serious doubts about whether the PM has the will to change – or even really accepts he has a problem.

This week, the issue was brought up at an urgent meeting of backbench 1922 Committee. Mr Johnson attempted to convince mutinous MPs not to support him over Covid but failed.

Witnesses have told Johnson that Andrew Percy (a Tory member of the ‘Awkward Squad) said to Mr Johnson that he was capable of remaining PM for several years as long as he “sorted out his team” in No 10.

One witness said: ‘The PM said we ‘shouldn’t believe all that media guff’ – he just dismissed it. At the point of denial, people had their heads in their ears.

Yesterday Mr Johnson said he accepted ‘personal responsibility for the terrible outcome in North Shropshire. 

But, he again appeared to blame the media – and even the voters – for his predicament, saying people had been too fixated on ‘politics and politicians’ and failed to notice the Government’s other achievements, such as the rapid rollout of booster jabs.

It has been speculated that he might be replaced by someone else. An ex-Minister in Cabinet predicted that the discreet campaigning of potential successors will intensify after this week’s disaster for the PM. 

Liz Truss is brazenly portraying herself as the second coming of Margaret Thatcher – a low tax, freedom loving, woke-bashing Tory, who is only too happy to pose for a photo op on top of a tank.

In a swipe at rival Rishi Sunak, the Foreign Secretary has let it be known that she opposed his decision to raise taxes to pay for social care – and has even hinted she briefly considered resigning from the Cabinet over the issue.

The allies of Mr Sunak point out with gentleness that Miss Truss has been a late convert, as she campaigned for Remain at the 2016 referendum. 

In his briefings the Chancellor stressed his tax-cutting ambitions.

One former Cabinet minister predicted that discreet campaigning by potential successors was likely to intensify in the wake of the PM's nightmare week. Liz Truss is brazenly portraying herself as the second coming of Margaret Thatcher – a low tax, freedom loving, woke-bashing Tory

A former cabinet minister said that potential successors’ discreet campaigns would increase in the aftermath of PM’s nightmare weeks. Liz Truss is brazenly portraying herself as the second coming of Margaret Thatcher – a low tax, freedom loving, woke-bashing Tory

However, the frontrunners may not be the only one who is able to execute manoeuvres.

Tory MPs report that Treasury minister Mel Stride has again started hosting cosy dinner parties for backbenchers at which Michael Gove is always the guest of honour – prompting speculation he is considering a third tilt at the top job.

Priti Patel’s chances of winning are ‘certain’ according to Tory MPs. Penny Mordaunt was also reported to have reached out to potential supporters.

Both Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid have admirers. Ambitious outsiders such as Tom Tugendhat will likely give it a shot, even if they are not in the Cabinet.

Johnson’s inability to find a clear successor will allow him some breathing space. His critics admit that there’s no candidate who can match his proven electoral appeal.

But his unique selling point has always been his ability to defy political gravity – the politician who won two terms of office in Labour London, who led a victorious Brexit campaign against the odds, who secured seats in Labour’s heartlands that had been red for a century.

Political gravity is suddenly reaffirming itself. Some MPs are concerned that Johnson could become a political black hole, sucking the party to his feet.

If he remembers how, he has enough time to get the anti-gravity device working again. He may not have as much time to do it as he thought.