No single “anti-sleaze” candidate will be fielded to challenge the Tories to replace Owen Paterson after Labour and the Lib Dems confirmed they would fight the by-election.
Casual communications between the opposition parties to field a unity candidate in North Shropshire had taken place, but the move was not considered viable and both parties said on Friday they would fight for the seat.
It has been vacated by the former Cabinet minister’s resignation following a 24-hour debacle during which Boris Johnson humiliatingly U-turned after attempting to overhaul the disciplinary process to save him from suspension.
Mr Paterson, a long-standing friend of the Prime Minister, had been found to have breached Commons rules by lobbying officials and ministers for two companies paying him more than £100,000 a year.
The rural constituency is considered ultra-safe for the Tories, with Mr Paterson having held it since 1997, but allegations of sleaze aimed at the Conservatives under the current leadership will likely feature strongly in the contest.
A date is yet to be set for the by-election in North Shropshire, where Mr Paterson won 63% of the vote in 2019, beating Labour by nearly 23,000 votes, with the Lib Dems coming third.
But the Lib Dems were talking up their chances following their shock victory in the former Tory safehold of Chesham and Amersham in June.
Officials expect concerns over controversial planning reforms could again feature on the doorstep, as well as the Conservatives’ handling of sewage polluting rivers.
A Lib Dem source added: “The Liberal Democrats are the anti-sleaze party in this election and the best placed to win votes from the Conservatives.
“We came second to the Tories in last May’s local elections in North Shropshire, showing that we are the main opposition to Boris Johnson’s sleazy and corrupt Government here.”
Discussions surrounding a unity candidate were understood to have fallen flat with it being decided that the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act introduced in 2000 makes it challenging for parties to share data, funding and staff.
Meanwhile, Downing Street declined to rule out the possibility that Mr Paterson could be handed a peerage in the wake of his resignation on Thursday.
A No 10 spokesman said: “I’ve seen the speculation on that, there’s obviously a formal process for peerages.”
A Government source insisted that no discussions about sending Mr Paterson to the Lords have taken place.
Allies of Mr Paterson had sought to save him from a six-week suspension – which could have potentially triggered a by-election – by tabling an amendment to overhaul the disciplinary process that found he breached the rules for MPs.
The controversial plan was backed by almost 250 Tory MPs ordered to back the move on Wednesday, although there was a sizable rebellion and by Thursday morning the Government was forced into an embarrassing U-turn, blaming a lack of cross-party support for the proposals.
Mr Paterson resigned soon afterwards, saying he would “remain a public servant but outside the cruel world of politics”.
On Friday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi admitted that he had not read the detail of the report into Mr Paterson’s conduct, despite voting for the amendment which saved him from suspension on Wednesday.
Asked on BBC Breakfast who was right in the row, after Mr Paterson reasserted that he was innocent, Mr Zahawi said: “I actually haven’t read the report.”
Asked how he could have voted on the issue when he had not read the report, he said: “I’ve looked at the report, I haven’t gone into the detail.
“Owen says that much of it is contested, right? I think something like 14 people have sent statements (saying) that it’s contested.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant, the chairman of the cross-party Standards Committee, which recommended Mr Paterson’s suspension, said every MP had been emailed urging them to read the report.
He told the PA news agency: “I know ministers have a busy life, but I guess you’d hope that the Education Secretary would do his homework.”
Despite Mr Paterson quitting rather than face the prospect of being suspended from Parliament for 30 sitting days, MPs are set to hold an emergency debate on Monday on the consequences of this week’s events in the Commons.
Since he has now resigned there is no need for MPs to endorse the Standards Committee report concerning him.
Conservative Sir David Lidington, former leader of the House of Commons, said the farce had damaged politicians’ reputation.
“The reputation of the House of Commons as an institution and MPs of all parties will have been damaged by the events of the last 24 hours,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
And the former MP also said the affair has “weakened the Government”, making it harder for Boris Johnson to win support from backbench MPs on potentially unpopular measures in future.