Byelection defeat highlights Brexit urgency for Johnson

Leave parties won a majority in Brecon and Radnorshire and the Tories can unite that vote

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives may have been defeated in their first electoral test in the Welsh farming seat of Brecon and Radnorshire, but the relatively narrow 1,425-vote loss to the Liberal Democrats can still give the new prime minister hope if his administration can leave the EU by 31 October.

The most immediately obvious statistic beyond the overall result was that the size of Jane Dodds’ win was smaller than the 3,331 votes secured by the Brexit party; mopping those up would hand the Tories a win in a seat where Plaid Cymru and the Green party had stood aside to give the pro-remain Lib Dems the best shot at victory.

Nor can it have helped that the constituency party chose to select the same candidate, Chris Davies, who had been found guilty of making false expenses claims, an easy attack line even if the offence was fairly technical.

Nevertheless, those looking for a Conservative bounce after Johnson’s elevation to Downing Street would have to study the figures carefully. The party’s share of the vote was down by 9.6 percentage points in the seat at 39%, although that was markedly better than its result in Peterborough in early June when, at an early phase of the party’s leadership contest, the Tory vote slumped 29 points and Labour held the seat when the leave vote was split.

Byelection result graph

The simple fact remains that the Tories lost in a marginal seat held by the governing party in 2015 and 2017 and the Brexit party’s 10.5% shows that the new prime minister remains on notice at least until Brexit is concluded.

The Lib Dems underlined their increasingly healthy revival, gaining 14.3 points to reach 43.5% and regaining a constituency the party held in four consecutive elections from 1997.

It was a welcome victory for the new leader, Jo Swinson, although expectations were such that the seat had become close to a must-win for a party that now holds 13 seats at Westminster. Party activists had travelled from around the country to flood the seat, evoking memories of the byelection successes in the previous decade.

Although Plaid stood aside, the Welsh nationalists only have a modest presence in the border seat; at the last general election the party only secured 3.1% of the vote. With no Green candidate standing, most of the party’s gain came from Labour, which lost 12.5 percentage points and slumped to fourth place.

Corbyn’s party was claiming, not unreasonably, that it was a two-horse race for the seat and the result’s real importance was the Conservative defeat, but a haul of 1,680 votes and a 5.3% share (just enough to retain its deposit) will have been at the lower end of what was credible.

Ultimately, a narrow majority of 50.3% of the vote went to unambiguously pro-Brexit parties in a seat that voted 51.9% for leave in the 2016 EU referendum. The Conservatives know they have a chance to unite that vote if they can credibly leave the EU at the end of October.

What the Brecon result shows is that failure to do so would almost certainly lead to the party being defeated at Westminster if an election were to be held, or forced on Johnson, shortly after a failure to leave the EU or a Brexit widely believed to have been botched.

  • This article was amended on 2 August 2019 to correct the percentage who voted for pro-Brexit parties in the byelection.


Dan Sabbagh

The GuardianTramp

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