The Tories lost a seat in Westminster last night, thanks to the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election. The government’s working majority is reduced to just one. Good news? Sort of.
It destabilises the Conservative Party’s grip on power, which cannot be a bad thing. It means the ruling party would have to seek a mandate via a general election to get any kind of domestic agenda through parliament, though that simply leaves us with a nothing-but-Brexit administration, which we have already been experiencing since 2017. And the need to go to the polls again was already pressing.
But the reduced majority doesn’t matter so much if Boris Johnson doesn’t intend to bring back a Brexit turd rolled in glitter, à la Theresa May. If his game plan is to appear to keep his “do or die” deadline promise and leave with no deal, or not leave with no deal because he is thwarted by MPs then win an election after pushing a betrayal narrative, then not being able to function in parliament is of little consequence.
Labour didn’t expect to do well in this by-election. It’s a seat that has not been red since the 1970s. Momentum did no great campaign drive, unlike for Peterborough; canvassers weren’t bussed in; very little was spent on local Facebook ads. Local candidate Tom Davies worked hard but it was a no-hoper. Particularly because the electorate reckoned their best chance of keeping their recalled former MP out of office was to vote Lib Dem. It’s entirely understandable that some Labour members will conclude that the result, even if it was so bad that the party only just got its deposit back, is nothing much to worry about given these circumstances.
But there are other consequences to worry about. The most important factor to consider is that ‘Remain alliances’ have just been proven to work. It has already been concluded that the Lib Dem victory couldn’t have happened without the Greens and Plaid Cymru standing aside. Anyone who agrees with Labour candidate Tom Davies and the Labour left and many others that a win for the Lib Dems should not be celebrated, even if it hurts the Tories, should be very anxious. Further Remain alliances look pretty much nailed on for an early election.
While a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Lib Dems is theoretically possible should Labour fall short of a majority but become the biggest party, Jo Swinson has ruled out a coalition and really doesn’t want to help Jeremy Corbyn become Prime Minister. And many of us would be horrified by any such alliance even if it were conceivable. Labour is aiming for a majority, not to pair up with watered-down Tories.
The other important conclusion that will be drawn from this by-election result is that the lack of a Leave alliance may have lost the Tories this seat. The loss will ensure that Boris Johnson does not row back on his hard Brexit pledges. But it also makes a pact between the Conservatives and Brexit Party more likely.
Brecon and Radnorshire constituents were offered three flavours of pro-Brexit: the Tories, the Brexit Party and UKIP. Combined, their votes stacked up to 15,974 – just over 2,000 more than Lib Dem Jane Dodds’ total. Now, there are caveats to be noted. Labour candidate Tom Davies said that while he didn’t encounter a single Labour-to-Tory switcher, he did meet Labour Leavers who switched to the Brexit Party. And Brexit Party candidate Des Parkinson suggested his support was evenly split between ex-Labour and ex-Tory. Not all of those BP votes could have gone Tory, then. But they wouldn’t have needed to: Parkinson won 3,331 votes, which is more than double the margin by which the Tories lost (1,425).
The most worrying thing about this by-election? It has increased the chances of both Remain and Leave alliances in an early election, which could see Labour squeezed out and made irrelevant as they were last night. And there’s not much the party can do about that possibility. Labour will just have to hope that it can shift the broader narrative, rather than ignore it, and that the ever-more-likely snap poll isn’t fought entirely on Brexit.