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ANALYSIS: Why the Brecon by-election could ruin Boris Johnson's plan for Brexit by 31 October

ANALYSIS: Why the Brecon by-election could ruin Boris Johnson's plan for Brexit by 31 October
6 min read

Parliament may be in recess but politics has certainly not broken up for summer, with the new Prime Minister facing his first electoral test just eight days into the job.

Voters will go to the polls in Brecon and Radnorshire on Thursday, and with the Liberal Democrats at 1/20 to take the South Wales seat ,Boris Johnson faces his already minute majority in Parliament shrinking even further.

The Tories are languishing at 10/1 to win the by-election, which was called after sitting MP Chris Davies was booted out by local voters following his conviction for expenses fraud.

The 51-year-old former auctioneer was found guilty of submitting fake invoices worth £700 for nine framed landscape photographs to decorate his office.

He was fined £1,500 and ordered to complete 50 hours of community service, but in a statement on his website said it was simply an “administrative error”.

The local Conservative Association party seemed to agree, making the surprise decision to reselect Mr Davies to fight the by-election caused by his own criminal conviction.

Labour’s chair Ian Lavery said it showed "contempt" for local voters, but Glyn Davies, the Tory MP for neighbouring Montgomeryshire, said he deserved a “second chance”.

It now seems unlikely however that he will be able to hold on in the face of a resurgent and organised campaign by the Lib Dems, with their Welsh leader Jane Dodds selected as their candidate way back in March.

Speaking while out door-knocking in Hay-on-Wye this week, she said conversations had been dominated by the typical issues you would expect from a large rural seat, the biggest in England and Wales, like broadband and local post office and bank closures.

But there is also a large farming community worried about the impact a no deal Brexit could have on their livelihoods.

Her campaign has been boosted by the decision of fellow Remain-supporting parties Plaid Cymru and the Greens to stand aside to give her the best chance of victory.

Although mathematically it may not make a huge difference (Plaid came fourth last time with 1,300 votes, 3% of the total, while the Greens did not field a candidate) the Lib Dems say it has helped send a “clear message” on Brexit, and both parties have sent activists to help out with field work.

To win she has to overhaul the 8,000 majority Mr Davies enjoyed when he retained the seat in 2017.

A bell-weather constituency, it has changed hands five times since 1979 when Labour lost control of it after 40 years.

Jeremy Corbyn’s party have not joined Plaid and the Greens in stepping aside and are fielding a candidate, as are the Brexit party, Ukip and the Monster Raving Loony Party, but it is seen as a two-horse race betwee the Lib Dems and Tories.

Whether Mr Davies’ own past will do him damage when voters head to the polls remains to be seen, with suggestions many locals had already made their mind up about him before the campaign.

Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael, who visited the seat earlier this month, said: “I don’t think it really helps us to bring it up.”

He said Ms Dodds has fought a good campaign on local issues, and said the corner of the seat he went out canvassing in saw former Labour voters “coming over to us because they completely got the tactical issue”.

And the Orkney and Shetland MP suggested anger locally over Jeremy Corbyn’s national leadership would be the real boost for his party.

“Normally when you go canvassing in Labour areas you have to be a bit careful what you say about Jeremy Corbyn – [in Brecon] not a bit of it,” he told PoliticsHome.

“People were offering up Corbyn as a reason for changing their vote without prompting.”

Mr Carmichael is one of a number of senior Lib Dem figures who have been to Brecon and Radnorshire in recent weeks, with others including new leader Jo Swinson, her predecessor Vince Cable and her leadership rival Ed Davey.

For the Tories, Boris Johnson took the surprise decision to visit the constituency on Tuesday, but it was widely seen to have been too little, too late, to save his man.

Staff at Tory HQ had reporteldy been struggling to get MPs to travel to a rural constituency four hours from London, a long way from the action as the party focused on choosing a new leader, to campaign for a convicted criminal in a seat they were feted to lose.

At the recent hustings between Jeremy Hunt and Johnson, placards were left on every seat calling on party members to volunteer and help out, but despite a last-minute flurry of visits Mr Davies’ campaign has lacked star power.

One of the big names who did show up last weekend was newly-appointed Cabinet minister and grassroots darling Jacob Rees-Mogg, pictured canvassing with his son Peter in matching tweed suits.

He told PoliticsHome he was “delighted to be knocking on doors” to help Mr Davies get back to Parliament.

He added: “I was met with a friendly reception from constituents. It is clear that people want us to come together and deliver on the result of the referendum.

“If re-elected Chris will work tirelessly for his constituents and in supporting the Prime Minister to deliver Brexit as we leave the EU on 31st October.”

But if Mr Davies fails to win back his seat it could have big implications for Mr Johnson’s plan to take us out of the EU by Hallowe’en "deal or no deal", as the re-jigged parliamentary arithmetic could see his majority down to just one.

Currently the Tories have 310 MPs, excluding deputy speaker Eleanor Laing who does not vote by convention. Throw in the 10 DUP MPs and Mr Johnson has, at most, a total of 320 votes to call on in any motion of no confidence.

At the moment there are 318 opposition MPs, if you add together Labour’s 247, minus their two deputy speakers Lindsay Hoyle and Rosie Winterton, 35 SNP, 16 independents, 12 Liberal Democrats, five Independent Group for Change, four Plaid Cymru and one from the Green Party.

There are then the 7 abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs, the neutral Speaker John Bercow, and the vacancy in Brecon and Radnorshire to make the total figure of 650.

If the Lib Dems win as expected the Government’s working majority will be just one, and as a former whip himself Mr Carmichael points out: “Every day is a knife-edge vote at that point.”

Mr Corbyn has hinted he will look at calling a no confidence vote in September, after the new MP is sworn in, when it will take potentially just a single disaffected Tory to rebel and bring down the Government, forcing a General Election in the autumn.

Several, including former Attorney general Dominic Grieve, have said they were willing to back such a vote if it was the only way to rule out a no deal Brexit.

And with Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister put in charge of no deal planning by Mr Johnson, saying the Government is now operating “on the assumption” the UK is going to leave in such a scenario, the result of the by-election is crucial to how any such vote may play out.

Read the most recent article written by Alain Tolhurst - How MPs Could Be Hit By Proposed Changes To Parliament’s Code Of Conduct

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