After less than two weeks in office, Boris Johnson appears to have failed his first electoral test as Britain’s Prime Minister. Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Jane Dodds won the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election on Thursday, defeating embattled Tory incumbent Christopher Davies by 1,425 votes, and cutting the government’s majority in the Commons to just one. That includes the Conservative Party’s shotgun partners from Ulster, the Democratic Unionist Party. With fears of a no-deal Brexit very real, and very much back on the table, that number could shrink even further by the end of the week.
In March, Davies was found guilty on two counts of submitting false parliamentary expenses claims. The conviction automatically triggered a recall petition, which was successful. Amazingly, Davies remained the Conservative candidate in his own by-election contest. Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, campaigned for him. For Johnson, who visited Brecon earlier in the week, it sets a record for the earliest by-election loss ever by a new Prime Minister. Davies, for his part, congratulated his party for running a “clean and positive” campaign. “Sadly, a few of our competitors have led a dirty campaign.”
The result was a 14-point swing to the Lib Dems, who only two years ago were shut out of Wales for the first time in their history (or any of their party’s historical predecessors). Labour were crushed, falling to fourth place, behind the Brexit Party, and nearly losing their deposit. Both the Greens and pro-independence Plaid Cymru sat out, to avoid splitting the Remain vote. The decision has led to rumors of a coming pact, between the Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru, and perhaps the Scottish National Party, should there be a snap election. As for this election, Dodds made clear her goals as a newly elected MP: “to find Boris Johnson, wherever he’s hiding, and tell him loud and clear: stop playing with the futures of our communities and rule out a no-deal Brexit.”
The Conservatives have now lost six seats off their result from the 2017 general election. Their majority in the Commons stands at just one, 320-319. That number may erode even further, as Tory squeamishness over a no-deal Brexit grows. Dr. Phillip Lee, MP for Bracknell, says he feels “politically homeless” over his party’s shift towards no deal upon Johnson’s election as leader. The pro-EU Tory said he wants a “Final Say” referendum, and may consider defecting to the Lib Dems. Dr. Lee said he would spend the summer parliamentary recess “thinking a lot” about his future. There may be other Conservatives like him doing some thinking of their own.
While by-elections, like special elections here in the States, are a notoriously bad predictor of future outcomes, it’s difficult to ignore the reality of what just took place, or the gravity of Boris Johnson’s situation. He has promised to deliver Brexit, by any means necessary and in any form, by Halloween. Britain crashes out of the European Union with no deal if no further action is taken. However, it’s becoming even clearer now that a majority of MPs— regardless of party— would be willing to stop him from simply dribbling toward the corner flag and running out the clock. His predecessor was able to rely on her members, and Arlene Foster’s DUP, to narrowly survive a no-confidence motion. Boris might not be so lucky.