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Shifting through the runes of the Brecon and Radnorshire by election result, it becomes clear that British politics is changing in ways that we have never previously seen and that Brexit is the primary engine of this change.
First the facts. This seat was captured by the LibDems in 1997 and stayed in their hands until the 2015 GE when the Conservatives won it. Today, it is back in LibDem hands. So the “change” here can be seen as simply a return to the status quo. LidDem Leader Jo Swinson has claimed that this is a devastating defeat for Boris Johnson and further proof that the LidDem “bollocks to Brexit” strategy is winning.
Is she correct?
What lies behind the result and what are the broader lessons?
In the first instance, the only reason that there WAS a by-election was because the incumbent Conservative MP Christopher Davies was found guilty of forging expenses documents!
This is called, technically, not a good look!
‘On 21 February 2019, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that Davies had been charged with two counts of making a false instrument and one count of providing false or misleading information for allowance claims. He pleaded guilty to two counts on 22 March 2019 in the Crown Court at Southwark. On 23 April 2019 he was sentenced to a community order requiring 50 hours’ unpaid work, together with a fine of £1,500. In sentencing, the judge said “It seems shocking that when confronted with a simple accounting problem, you thought to forge documents. That is an extraordinary thing for a man with your position and your background to do.”
This led to more than 19% of his constituents signing a petition to have him recalled. At this point he lost the seat and a by-election was triggered. That was on June 21st. Remarkably, just two days later, he was allowed to stand again and try and re-win the seat he had lost. Obviously this decision was taken by the Theresa May administration at that time.
The wisdom of selecting a man as Conservative candidate for a seat which his ill judged behaviour had seen him lose that seat remains inexplicable!
That said, he narrowly failed to do so, coming in with 12,401 votes vs the LibDems winning total of 13,826.
But even this small margin of LibDem victory is not quite what it seems.
Both the Green Party and Plaid Cymru (Allegedly “The Party of Wales”!) decided not to stand in this by-election, allowing Remain votes to coalesce around the Libdem candidate. In 2015, the year the Conservatives won the seat, the Green/Plaid combined vote was 3028.
Last night, the LibDem majority was circa 1400. So even WITH Plaid and the Greens lending their votes to the LibDems, the expected easy 3000+ majority didn’t happen. Instead a narrow win was achieved in a seat which has been held by the LibDems for decades. Stellar success or squeaking a win?
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Brexit Party DID stand and in doing so attracted 3331 votes. One can assume that had they NOT stood, then the Conservatives would have had a better result. In fact if all the votes cast are toted up, it is interesting to see that LEAVE parties attracted 50.2% of vote and Remain Parties attracted 49% of the vote. So a majority of those who voted supported an unambiguous LEAVE position. Quite how Jo Swinson sees this as a “victory” for Remain is a curious
Of course at one level it IS a victory for Remain insofar as it has reduced the Conservative Government majority to 1 (and that includes the DUP ongoing support) Given the Remain fanatics entrenched on Conservative benches, it is very hard to see how Prime Minister Johnson can push through a WTO Brexit by October 31st. It would only take a Dominic Grieve, a Phil Hammond or a Justine Greening – or all of them – to vote against the Government and that would bring the Government down.
So the political noose tightens around the neck of the Prime Minister. He has several options;
There is trouble with both these scenarios. It seems very unlikely that the devout Remainers on his own backbenches would be willing accomplices to a No Deal Brexit and there is a very high chance that they WOULD put the EU before the UK and bring their own Government down. Those like Grieve have already indicated this as a real possibility. In a similar vein, if the Government tries to push through the May Withdrawal Agreement minus the backstop, Conservative MP Mark Francois has made it clear that dozens of his colleagues will vote that down.
In each scenario, a General Election looks to be the only way to relieve the pressure cooker. And this is where the idea of a pragmatic Brexit coalition comes into play. It the Conservatives and Brexit Party could come to a sensible tactical arrangement then this might well result in a new Government with a Conservative-Brexit alliance at the heart of it.
Labour are languishing in the polls – coming a miserable 4th in this by-election, managing to just about beat the Official Monster Raving Loony Party candidate but no one else. So the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street recedes and it will recede further if he does that urged by the likes of Emily Thornberry and that is to entirely and expressly abandon ALL those Labour voters who want to Leave the EU and stand on a full REMAIN ticket. This would then provide the Conservative-Brexit Party Alliance with rich pickings in those northern English heartlands.
The beacon in Brecon is burning bright to see. Unify the forces of Brexit and start winning back. This is bigger than Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – it is about delivering a soveign and independent United Kingdom outside the EU this year.