This is probably the hardest job in British politics currently. Neil Shastri-Hurst is the Tory candidate at the most crucial by-election in a generation. He unwittingly ends up being the lightning conductor of an incredible series of Conservative disasters.

In the first instance, this by-election is only happening because the previous Tory MP, Owen Paterson, stood down after a lobbying scandal (involving companies which had been paying him £100,000 a year).

From sleaze to cheese and wine, via Peppa Pig, No 10 wallpaper and the dismal failures over the fall of Kabul, along with the opinion polls falling and a growing backbench Tory ‘Plan B mutiny’, the other candidates here in North Shropshire scarcely know where to start when lobbing bricks at Dr Shastri-Hurst’s campaign.

In addition to all this, Dr ShastriHurst has been parachuted in from Birmingham. Dr Shastri – Hurst is a key player in local Tory politics and was parachuted in to Birmingham.

As the Tory candidate in perhaps the most pivotal by-election for a political generation, Neil Shastri-Hurst unwittingly finds himself the lightning conductor for a monumental series of self-inflicted Conservative catastrophes

Neil Shastri-Hurst is the Tory candidate at the pivotal By-Election for any political generation. He unwittingly ends up being the lightning conductor of a series of Conservative-inflicted catastrophes

Yet it falls to him to sell Boris Johnson’s increasingly tarnished wares to the electorate here next Thursday.

Two very valuable qualifications are at the least on Dr Shastri Hatt’s CV. He is a veteran Army physician and GP and has been trained to be shot at as well as in the treatment of wounds. Even though he’s not on the campaign trail, he can handle both.

He joins me canvassing in Pant. Pant is a small village within the sprawling Welsh agricultural constituency. It’s like an arrow target.

‘Your lot are just a bloody disgrace. I don’t know how you can show your face with that man of yours in charge. He should resign — or be arrested, like he would be in any other job,’ thunders retired toolmaker Graham Yapp, sitting at the bar of the Cross Keys, to appreciative nods from other drinkers. Dr Shastri-Hurst hasn’t even had time to order his cup of tea.

Mr Yapp doesn’t look like a foam-flecked Trot hankering after Jeremy Corbyn. He is a Margaret Thatcher devotee and — until the other day, at least — was a lifelong Tory voter. This by-election result was almost caused by the lobbying scandal, which he said left him feeling angry and nearly trembling. But the ‘mess-up’ over the Downing Street lockdown party (or was it parties?) has really riled him: ‘You can say what you like but you’ve lost my vote!’

Dr Shastri Haurst allows himself to vent and then calmly says that he is very disappointed with what he read about Downing Street, and that any wrongdoing needs to be punished.

In the first instance, this by-election is only happening because the previous Tory MP, Owen Paterson, stood down after a lobbying scandal (involving companies which had been paying him £100,000 a year). The candidates are pictured above

In the first instance, this by-election is only happening because the previous Tory MP, Owen Paterson, stood down after a lobbying scandal (involving companies which had been paying him £100,000 a year). Above are the candidates

He doesn’t try to duck Mr Yapp’s stream of invective and takes it on the chin. At the end of the interview, he coaxed a handshake from his attacker. There still is not a chance in hell that Mr Yapp will return to the Tory fold next week, but the Conservative candidate can console himself with the fact that he won’t be voting for anyone else either.

It is not an uncommon scene in Shropshire, and it’s amazing. This is a remarkable scenario, as it seems that the Tories have the best chance of winning rural land. It includes five beautiful market towns along with many pretty villages and country estates.

A buoyant, mustard-keen Liberal Democrat campaign is based in the old stable block of a delightful Tudor mansion. Soulton Hall has been in the Ashton clan for many centuries and is just a few miles from Charles Darwin’s first fossil. There is no shortage of fascinating history hereabouts — but this area could be adding a new chapter next week.

For if Boris Johnson’s Tories lose this seat, the party will be consumed with wrath and fear in equal measure. The safe-as-houses Tory MPs will ask themselves, as well as their activists: If it’s possible in Shropshire to happen, how is there any guarantee that anything else will be secured next time?

And the bookies — always the safest pointer in these quirky contests — have just put the Lib Dems ahead as favourites. Labour activists are calling it a ‘perfect storm’. One Tory minister has called it a ‘clusterf***’; another says ‘it is the beginning of the end’.

In the long tradition of bloody noses, incumbent governments have been given bloody noses by by-elections. But this election feels different. It will be more than a sign of midterm woes for a weak Government if the Tories are defeated. This will accelerate what is already a sudden, dramatic shift in political climate.

Last month saw the change in the form of the PM trying to manipulate an inquiry into the Lobbying Scandal involving Owen Paterson, the Tory MP. But Paterson flipped-flopped and fell on his sword. Since when, the list of Tory disasters has been mounting, all of them of the party’s own making.

A YouGov poll yesterday gave Labour the highest score in over a year. A four-point Opposition lead is not, on paper, grounds for panic, except that the last time Labour were in this position was in the midst of last winter’s Covid shambles. In other words, it was not during a crisis that was the Government’s fault.

Similarly, the summer’s by-election result in suburban Chesham & Amersham was a heck of a result for the moribund Lib Dems.

This one took place against the background of an extremely unpopular blot in the local landscape: the HS2 construction works which continue to eat away at the once-lovely Chilterns. An element of Remainer revenge among a middle-class commuter-professional cohort was a factor, too.

For if the Tories lose, it will not just be symptomatic of the midterm woes of a flabby Government. It will hasten what has already been a very sudden and dramatic change in the political weather. That change began last month when the PM tried to rig an inquiry into that lobbying scandal involving the then Tory MP, Owen Paterson, only to flip-flop and leave Paterson to fall on his sword

It will be more than a sign of an inept Government’s midterm woes if they lose. This will accelerate what is already a sudden, dramatic shift in political climate. This change was initiated last month by the PM’s attempt to fake an inquiry into the Lobbying Scandal involving Owen Paterson, Tory MP. But Paterson lost his cool and fell to the sword.

North Shropshire has no unseemly, large-scale developments in the prospect. There were almost two-to-one support in the area for Brexit, and there are no complaints. The issue here is the Prime Minister’s personal integrity and competence. If you remove these issues, the parties would have little to do here.

Helen Morgan is the Lib Dem candidate. She’s a chartered accountant and has a teenage student at a local high school. Helen came in third at last year’s General Election. The recent closing of the local ambulance station is something she’s making a lot of noise about. ‘We’re not focusing on sleaze,’ she says, which seems to be true —largely because she doesn’t need to. They are better at it than the Tories.

I hear similar arguments from Labour’s Ben Wood, 26, an articulate and confident parliamentary adviser who was born and bred here but seems destined for greater things on safer turf elsewhere.

‘I am getting four or five Tories a day telling me they’re voting Labour this time,’ says Mr Wood.

‘The Downing Street party is the big issue because it reminds people of what a horrible time they were having last year.’

These two camps are currently at odds over whether one of them should be allowed to make room for the other in an effort to get rid of the Tories.

To the dismay of Labour supporters, The Guardian is urging Labour not to stand down. Duncan Kerr (Green candidate), is a local councillor and offers an impartial overview. ‘The fact is angry Tories won’t vote Labour but they might just vote Lib Dem.’

The outlook is candidly shared by him. ‘Last week, I didn’t imagine that the Lib Dems could get over the line, but that’s all changed after what’s happened in Downing Street. They could take it.’

We are chatting in an Ellesmere car park following a debate arranged by the local National Farmers’ Union. This is a rural seat, but it’s also heavily agricultural. Even the larger industrial employers here are in the farming game — Oaklands (eggs) and Muller (yoghurts).

It is important to be familiar with Defra jargon. This is why Owen Paterson was so beloved as a former Defra minister. For once, the Tory candidate is delighted to get a question about muck-raking — literally. Bruce Edwards, local farmer, is furious at Whitehall’s plan to limit the time farmers can apply manure to their fields.

It’s hardly Dr Shastri-Hurst’s area of expertise but he agrees that it should be left to farmers. He has secured Mr Edwards’s vote. ‘He’s the only one worth voting for,’ says the organic dairy farmer.

For hiding their candidate from media, the Tories are being attacked. When Dr Shastri-Hurst is ambushed by a BBC crew on the way out, he actually makes a fairly decent fist of handling the lengthy charge sheet of ‘What about . .?’ allegations. I notice that he doesn’t curtail the interview but lets it run its course.

A Birmingham-born former deputy chairman of the Tories’ West Midlands group, he is a more experienced operator than some of the party’s by-election candidates in recent years. He is capable of fighting his fights alone, which is a great thing given the circumstances.

He is now 38 and still qualifies as a doctor despite having retrained as a barrister. According to him, his Indian-heritage grandfather was a committed GP for over 50 years in Birmingham. His mother from Surrey was a nurse.

Boris Johnson was there to support him the other day, but he got his name wrong and called him Shastri Hughes. Toe-curling stuff. It’s all laughable for the would-be MP. ‘I’ve had much worse,’ he says.

He is far from metropolitan Brum and the other candidates love it. Should he win, he says he’ll be moving to this city with Naomi and his baby boy George.

However, this hasn’t been enough to stop local Tory party members from defecting. Mark Whittle was also a former soldier and was the chairman of the local Tory Association. He is also a former mayor from Market Drayton. He defected to Reform after he was exposed as a member of the Brexit Party’s remnants and being beaten by UKIP.

‘The Tories just dumped Neil on us as the candidate before we had a say. I showed him round town and I wasn’t impressed and then I decided to leave the party,’ says Mr Whittle, who served in the Falklands and Kosovo. ‘People here want someone who actually knows that there isn’t a bus service to Telford Hospital.’

As an ambulance driver himself, Mr Whittle describes other candidates’ complaints about ambulance station closures as ‘a complete red herring’. It’s the fact that the Tories are fielding a non-Salopian, he says, and raising two fingers at the general public with their raucous parties, that will do for them here.

He also said that he expected a lot more grief and abuse from the local Tories after he left. 

‘In fact, everyone has been very nice about it,’ he says. The Reform candidate, Kirsty Walmsley, 39, a local businesswoman and mother of two young children, insists that she is a ‘wild card’ in the election. While she won’t win the election, her outcome is something that high-ranking Conservatives will be closely watching.

Walking the streets of delightful places like Wem — birthplace of the sweet pea — and pub-filled Oswestry, I sense that the Tories still have a strong residual support from voters, especially older ones, for whom the Downing Street party row is just London ‘noise’.

‘It might bias the vote I suppose but it’s just tit-for-tat stuff,’ says retired chef John Robinson. ‘I’ve had my booster, things are OK. I’ll stick with the Conservatives.’

Carer and hairdresser Jane Skone speaks for many, however, when she says her erstwhile Tory vote is now very much afloat — if not at sea — after the latest ‘shenanigans’.

For there is now another huge problem to park at Boris Johnson’s door. After enduring the UKIP/Brexit/Reform threat in the previous election, many of his candidates were elected to parliament and Johnson won an overwhelming majority. This was an historic political accomplishment.

Reform can now reach the Tory majority with respectable gains by appealing the the furious Right to win support, and many MPs sitting today will fear the return of Nigel Farage’s vote-splitting age.

It would make for a much worse long-term nightmare than the Downing Street mistletoe Christmas last year.