Richard North, 03/08/2019  

Such is the speed of the news cycle these days that Thursday's by-election at Brecon and Radnorshire has already been consigned to yesterday's news, even though the result was not declared until the early hours of Friday, missing the print editions of the national newspapers.

What we should take of the result, though, is more difficult than usual to assess. The Conservative incumbent, Chris Davies is a thief, had been removed from office by the recall process after having been found guilty of two counts of fraud concerning Parliamentary expenses.

That he had been allowed to stand again might be taken as a snub to the electorate, not far short of an outright insult, so one might expect some voters to have reacted adversely, punishing the Tories for their unthinking arrogance. The very least the party could have done is select a fresh candidate, one without the taint of fraud.

Another point to make is that, for the past hundred years, the constituency has been held far more times by the Lib-Dems, and before that the Liberals, than it has the Tories. In that sense, when the Lib-Dem's Jane Dodds won the by-election, the seat was coming back home. It was never a "safe" seat for the Tories to lose.

That said, we also seem to be seeing a re-run of the Peterborough by-election, coincidentally also triggered by a recall. With both the Tories and Farage's party both fielding candidates, the Ukip effect was very much in evidence, with their combined vote of 17 thousand votes comfortably exceeding Labour's winning vote of just over ten thousand.

So it was with Brecon and Radnorshire. Dodds won her seat with 13,826 votes, a relatively narrow margin of just over 1,400 against the Tory criminal. But the combined vote of the Tories and the Farage party reached 15,732, another manifestation of the Ukip effect where, had Farage not split the vote, the seat could (in theory) have gone to the Tories.

Brecon, therefore, is not in any sense a game changer, even if Dodds has been overly triumphalist in asserting that her gain was a victory for "remain". She is on her own here. The overwhelming majority favoured leave, while her personal mandate runs only to 26 percent of the electorate. Even with 43.46 percent of those who voted, she does not command a majority.

One interesting difference, though, was that while Farage's party took 28.89 percent of the vote in Peterborough, in Brecon it plummeted to a mere 10.47 percent. If we take into account the turnout of 59.72, that means all Farage could do was enthuse just over six percent of the electorate, less than half the percentage (13.89) he managed to motivate in Peterborough.

Effectively, Farage has cost the Tories two seats that they desperately needed, and is possibly set to repeat that performance in coming elections, perhaps even costing them the next general election. But, for the moment, it goes without saying that the Tories are down to a majority of one, putting them in a somewhat parlous position.

Even then, things aren't necessarily as bad as they look, Although their thief dragged the Tory vote down by ten points compared with the 2017 election, this represents an improvement on their current position in the polls, which is registering a 12-point drop.

And that is a substantial improvement on the 25-point massacre the party took in Peterborough, suggesting that the Tories are enjoying a "Boris bounce", mainly at the expense of Farage.

To give it its due, the Guardian makes a relatively good stab at putting the by-election in context. It too notes that a mere majority of one isn't all it seems. Tory and Labour rebels and independents, it says, all complicate the parliamentary arithmetic.

In fact, the government's majority is not as perilous as might appear. The Tories number 310 MPs and with the DUP's 10, that makes 320. Then there is the wild card of Charlie Elphicke, MP for Dover, awaiting trial for sexual offences. With the whip removed, he is nominally independent but he would most certainly vote with the government on a confidence issue. That gives Johnson a headcount of 321, compared with an opposition which can only count on 319, once the Speaker, his deputies, and Sinn Fein, are accounted for.

The biggest threat might be defectors, such as Dr Phillip Lee, the former justice minister. He has already suggested that he could quit the party and he says he is not alone among colleagues considering defecting or resigning if Johnson pursues a no-deal Brexit.

"There are a number of colleagues who are spending the summer reflecting on what is the right way for them to confront this no-deal scenario", he says. "Of course, it is difficult for all of us because we joined the Conservative party, but it has morphed into something a lot different to what I joined in 1992".

However, the key is not the numbers, per se, but how MPs would react in a vote of confidence. But, as long as the man occupying the post of prime minister can rely on blurred loyalties and confusion of aims, the arithmetic works in his favour. And, of course, with parliament not currently in session, there is no immediate prospect of his being deposed. For the moment – just for the moment – he is safe.

Despite this, the Tories are under some pressure to enter into a pact with Farage, primarily to protect their general election ambitions. Matthew Parris even thinks that electoral pacts are the way forward, especially as Jane Dodds benefitted from a loose alliance of remain interests.

That notwithstanding, there is no obvious way a pact between Johnson and Farage could work – two huge egos would have trouble sharing the same room. But, for very good reasons, Johnson does not need to pursue this line, not least because the performance of Farage's "insurgents" in Brecon was hardly stellar.

Nor does there seem to be any enthusiasm in high places for closer ties. A government spokesman has said that Johnson has "no plans at all" to make a deal with the Brexit Party and "absolutely no intention" for any coalition with Mr Farage.

Arguably, the best way for Johnson to approach a general election is to neutralise Farage's appeal, doing exactly what he is currently doing – pushing for a no-deal Brexit. If one is to look at the relative performances of Farage's troops, this might already be succeeding, with his share of the vote having more than halved between Peterborough and Brecon.

The scenario I have already looked at is the possibility of Johnson going to the country on or around 31 October, demonstrating his absolute commitment to Brexit before the adverse effects of his no-deal strategy become apparent. Farage, without his leverage of demanding a no-deal Brexit, would have nowhere to go. One assumes his supporters would go flocking back to the Tories, giving Johnson a comfortable majority.

The one potential barrier to this is the fixed term parliament act, which would require Johnson to get a two-thirds majority in the House to agree to an election. Politics Home, however, thinks that this could be a done deal, convinced that we're looking at an autumn election. Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP would not turn down the chance to boot the Tories out, it avers.

With that scenario, the one thing we cannot expect is any serious dialogue between the Johnson administration and the EU. Clearly, the Tories' electoral fortunes are taking precedence over any rational settlement of Brexit, and no-deal has become a requisite for the party's success.

But, rather than weaken the Tories, if anything, Brecon seems to have brought the prospect of a general election even closer.

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