The UK government’s parliamentary majority has been reduced to just a single MP after the ruling Conversative party lost a by-election in Wales. In what has been described as “a major blow” for the UK’s new prime minister, the sitting Conservative MP Chris Davies lost his majority of 8,000 from the last contest two years ago.
The Liberal Democrats are understandably celebrating taking the parliamentary seat of Brecon and Radnorshire from the Conservatives. Yet the true portents of this result are more balanced, and show British politics, whatever its outward chaos, to be in a condition of stasis.
The Conservatives can comfort themselves for a number of reasons. The contest in Brecon and Radnorshire came about because of a recall petition (only the second successful one in Britain). When Davies was found to have misused parliamentary expenses, 19% of the electorate signed a petition to kick him out. That’s nearly twice the number of signatories required to recall an MP, indicating the intensity of opposition to Davies.
The local Conservative Party made the surprise decision to allow Davies to stand again, reflecting local activists’ corresponding indignation at the by-election.
The decision to support Davies may have deterred some Conservative voters from turning out. Certainly, a new Conservative candidate would have been able to campaign without this cloud over their head, and would not need to start each hustings with an awkward apology for what Davies called his “mistake.” And when the prime minister abandoned a planned visit to Brecon in the last week of the campaign, it suggested the Conservative Party nationally felt less than enthusiastic about Davies.
The Conservatives also took a hit from the Brexit Party in this by-election, which grabbed 10% of the vote – twice the number the Conservatives would have needed to close the gap on the Liberal Democrats. The new party’s local organisation was described as “threadbare” and its Brexit bus was abandoned in a hedge after breaking down on the campaign trail.
The Brexit Party candidate’s attempts to persuade party leader Nigel Farage to visit fell on deaf ears. Most importantly, the change of government policy on Brexit under the new prime minister robs the Brexit Party of much of its distinctive appeal as the “real” Leavers.
The Brexit Party came first in the European Parliament elections in May. At the recent Peterborough by-election it came close to winning – and in early polls for Brecon it had over 20% support. But that was before Boris Johnson took over as Tory leader, with his enthusiastic talk of a no-deal Brexit. Despite taking a chunk out of the Tory vote, the Brexit Party’s ultimate result in Brecon will leave it with serious credibility and morale problems.
Can the alliance hold?
On the other side of the Brexit divide, the Liberal Democrats were left with little competition after convincing Plaid Cymru and the Greens to withdraw in order to consolidate the Remain vote. But this tactic is unlikely to be repeated. Plaid’s vote in 2017 was almost identical to the Lib Dems’ majority in this by-election. Even former Conservative Heidi Allen - now an independent MP - came to campaign for Dodds. The future of a Remain Alliance is the subject of much excitement among Remainers but is still as yet unclear. The Greens and Plaid Cymru have supported joint candidates in Wales before, but will not stand aside so willingly in every other constituency.
With their party in the doldrums in Brecon and nationally, Labour’s voters were under the strongest inducement to vote tactically in this contest. Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to visit gave tacit acknowledgement of the party’s forlorn position. His continued indifference towards a new referendum and his own position as leader must be in question now. Labour won 18% of the Brecon vote in 2017, and if it had even recovered half of that share it would have made life difficult for Dodds.
Lastly, of course, the Liberal Democrats benefitted from their long-established expertise in fighting by-election contests. Drawing in hundreds of campaign workers from dozens of branches throughout Britain, delivering (according to the accusations of their opponents) 27 different leaflets, they crafted a carefully-nuanced message emphasising opposition to no deal rather than to Brexit itself. Not all of this will be available to Dodds at her next contest.
Without doubt there are important long-term changes to be noted in this result. The Liberal Democrats have asserted their dominance of the Remain Alliance, and this may lead to other joint candidatures, if not quite on the scale some hope. The Conservatives have struck a blow against the Brexit Party, and may now go in for the kill.
But the underlying scenario in respect of Brexit remains as it was in 2017 and at the 2016 referendum. At the referendum, the population of Brecon and Radnorshire voted 53% Leave. In this election, the parties calling for Brexit – if necessary without any deal – won just over 50%. The Liberal Democrats will have a tough time repeating this victory in any upcoming general election – but neither Johnson nor Corbyn will find much reason in this result to want to call one.