Brecon by-election: now for Remain to build on the success

The Liberal Democrat win is a boost—but the task ahead is enormous

August 02, 2019
Newly-election Liberal Democrat MP Jane Dodds, centre, celebrates with supporters as she wins the seat in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election at the Royal Welsh Showground, Llanelwedd, Builth Wells. Photo Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images
Newly-election Liberal Democrat MP Jane Dodds, centre, celebrates with supporters as she wins the seat in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election at the Royal Welsh Showground, Llanelwedd, Builth Wells. Photo Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images

It was the honeymoon gift Boris Johnson deserved. A week into his premiership, the prime minister has lost a seat held comfortably by his predecessor just two years ago. That’s right: under Theresa May, the failure Johnson has spent the last year traducing, Brecon and Radnorshire was won by over 8,000 votes. Last night, it fell to the Liberal Democrats. With Plaid Cymru and the Greens moving out of the way to help that party, we could even say that the seat fell to Remain.

Let’s be honest about this. The win was not large. And the pieces did not quite fall as predicted. When the Tory MP Chris Davies was convicted for false accounting and then recalled as an MP by a petition of his constituents, the Conservatives were slated to come third in the by-election, with the seat a toss-up between the Liberal Democrats (who held the seat for 18 years until 2015) and the fresh-faced Brexit Party. That didn’t happen. The Lib Dems won the seat with a majority of just 1,425 votes, on a share of 43.5 per cent. The Tories won 39 per cent. The Brexit Party, which polled top with 35.3 per cent in Brecon’s council area of Powys in May’s European elections, gained just 10.5 per cent on Thursday.

The Conservatives can take some comfort from this loss. They came fourth in Powys in May. More significantly, Johnson has gone some way to achieving that traditional Tory pastime, “shooting Nigel Farage’s fox.” David Cameron attempted it in 2013 by announcing a referendum in the first place. Now Johnson attempts it by claiming for himself the policy of no deal. If your Brexit is the hardest it could ever be, why would your hardline supporters desert you?

But it was still a loss. Johnson’s “bounce” was, in the end, not enough. The prime minister’s fundamental problem is that he cannot assemble a viable electoral coalition. He has partially succeeded in uniting the hard or no-deal Brexit vote—that is, around a third of the population—but the more he attracts one side, the more he repels the other. Thursday’s Liberal Democrat tally will not only have included Plaid supporters, Greens and tactical Labour voters, but also disaffected Tories who are as horrified by the prospect of no deal as all the others.

The Brexit Party remains another problem for the Tories. Even though its vote share plunged on Thursday, it squeezed the Conservative vote and probably handed the win to the Lib Dems. In a general election that could prove disastrous for the governing party, with Farage’s outfit gaining just enough votes to deny the Tories a victory but not enough to win seats itself. To pre-empt this, the PM could theoretically build an alliance with Farage. But to do so he would have to go even more enthusiastically for no deal and sell Farage all the family silver—haemorrhaging votes on his other flank. Whichever way he turns, he is trapped.

If a loss is a loss, a win is emphatically a win. This week the Remain parties demonstrated that they can make alliances work. Brecon remains a pro-Brexit constituency: the combined tally for the Tories, Brexit Party and Ukip was over 50 per cent on Thursday. And yet the seat still fell to a party which wants us to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU. If Plaid and the Greens had stood, and polled just a few percentage points, the Tories would have held the seat and we would now be discussing a new momentum for the PM and a no-deal Brexit. That didn’t happen. In exceptional times, political parties will have to behave exceptionally.

Which brings us to Labour. Thursday was a poor night for Jeremy Corbyn. Brecon and Radnorshire is not a Labour-friendly seat and the party never stood a chance of winning it, but its share was down by more than the Conservatives’ against the 2017 result. It once again warns the party not to obfuscate. Labour cannot decide if it wants to be known as a Remain party or not. As soon as one frontbencher says it is, the leader’s office issues a statement denying it. That is doing lasting harm and alienating voters on all sides.

And yet the party can take heart from one development. With the Tories now flaunting themselves as the party of no deal, a wide electoral coalition will emerge to oppose them. In a time of unprecedented national emergency, Labour voters will hold their noses and vote Lib Dem in seats like Brecon, just as Lib Dems did when they voted Labour in Peterborough in June. The ultimate goal must be to stop a no-deal Brexit—and on this point, the Labour Party has been entirely consistent.

We should not over-interpret yesterday’s by-election. When the inevitable general election comes, everything will depend on whether Brexit has been delivered and, if not, whether Johnson is still pushing no deal. The Tories could be annihilated, the voters could punish Corbyn, or both. British politics is uniquely volatile and unpredictable, and we simply do not know how the next few months will play out.

What the by-election does drive home is that the Tories have no majority worthy of the name. Johnson now has just a one-seat advantage in the Commons, and discipline has in any case broken down across the House. The PM has no mandate for anything—least of all a no-deal Brexit. Even in such strange times as ours, it matters when a new prime minister loses a safe seat a week into his honeymoon period. Johnson’s grip on power is only wafer-thin. The electorate and their representatives stand ready to remind him of it.