While everyone is preoccupied with the Tory leadership election, there is a quieter but extremely consequential contest about to take place.
While everyone is preoccupied with the Tory leadership election, the outcome of which is basically already known, there is a quieter but extremely consequential contest about to take place – the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election.
Yesterday it was announced that the by-election is likely to happen on August 1. It will be a huge thorn in the side of any incoming Conservative prime minister, who upon assuming office will face the same wafer-thin majority as Theresa May. The Conservative majority is anaemic to say the least and they simply cannot afford to lose any more MPs, especially if their leader is hoping to push a disastrous no-deal exit through parliament. They will have virtually no wiggle room.
Victory for the Lib Dems would eat into their numbers even further. Not to mention that the Tories’ working majority also depends on the backing of the Democratic Unionists. If even a small number among the party side with us – the Liberal Democrats – their plans for a Brexit deal getting through parliament are toast.
My party was voted out from the Welsh seat in 2015 by the Conservative MP Chris Davies, who was unseated following a petition signed by just over 10,000 of his constituents after he became embroiled in an expenses scandal, forcing a by-election. Most commentators, including the Welsh politics expert Roger Scully, view this by-election as a “very winnable” contest for the Lib Dems. Indeed, if the recent European parliamentary elections are anything to go by, we will be victorious.
Our success in those elections on May 23 pleasantly surprised many who had resigned themselves to the two-party parliamentary system – an incompetent opposition and a useless government in the negotiating seat. I believe that a lot of the support we received was the result of anger and frustration at the prospect of leaving the EU and it reflects the nation’s appetite for a People’s Vote.
In the Referendum in 2016, Brecon and Radnorshire voted narrowly by 51.86% for Leave, with 48.14% backing Remain. When the Lib Dems take the seat back, it will be a true emblem of the country’s change of heart over Brexit, which – let’s face it – was never really that strong in the first place.
I can’t help but think back to the recent by-election in Peterborough too, which was won by Labour. In a constituency which voted 60% Leave in the 2016 Referendum, you would have expected the Brexit Party to take the seat. But they didn’t. Even if you add in the Conservative votes, it still only comes to 43% support for pro-Leave parties. I suspect the tide is turning, and not just in Peterborough.
In a recent YouGov poll, the four-way party split which emerged during the European parliamentary election is still very much alive, with the Tories edging into joint lead with the Brexit Party on 22%, Labour on 20% and the Lib Dems just one point behind on 19%.
If this were to manifest in a snap-election, the Lib Dems would hold about 70 seats and hold the balance of power, as no party would have an absolute majority. With these sorts of numbers we would be in a much better position to either challenge a no-deal Brexit, or even become the “party of return”.
Whether there is a snap-election or not, this by-election is important for two reasons. In terms of parliamentary numbers, it gives the Conservatives an even smaller majority hindering further their plans to push through a calamitous no-deal Brexit. Symbolically, it also shows that the tide of public opinion is turning against leaving the EU altogether.
Dinesh Dhamija is a Liberal Democrat MEP for London