Brecon & Radnorshire: the by-election that never was?

Brecon & Radnorshire: the by-election that never was?

There’s a good chance it will be overtaken by a general election

The problem with being spoilt for excitement politically (apart from the complete wreckage of the party system, trust in politics and – who knows – maybe the country itself) is that there’s no time to sit back and appreciate what’s just gone before the next instalment arrives.

While that might be irritating for commentators, it has real practical effects too. The Brecon & Radnorshire recall petition has unseated Chris Davies and is due to lead to a by-election. However, it might well not, precisely because of the intensity of these crises.

When the Peterborough recall petition was successful, the writ for the by-election was moved almost immediately. That might well not happen in Brecon & Radnorshire. For the Tories, one good reason for delay is the simple fact that the Lib Dems are clear favourites to retake a seat they held up until 2015 and hold at Welsh Assembly level, and in so doing, reduce the Tories’ working majority with the not-entirely-reliable DUP to just 3.

Opinion polls suggest the Lib Dems are now polling around two-and-a-half to three times what they achieved at the 2017 general election, while the Tories are down by more than half. These are massive swings: more than enough by themselves to comfortably flip the seat, even before we take into account that by-election swings tend to be around 40% larger than the national polling at the time. Whether that rule-of-thumb still holds given the scale of movement and also the emergence of the Brexit Party is an open question but either way, Boris Johnson (assuming it is he) can expect to start his premiership with a loss, unless he can generate a sizeable honeymoon boost – or unless the election doesn’t happen at all.

There are more publicly-acceptable reasons to delay too though. Even if the writ were moved now, the by-election would be on July 25 or August 1. That’s well into the summer holidays and would potentially be a considerable inconvenience not only for voters but also for the local council running the election, which being in a massive constituency by area presumably has more polling stations than average. For context, the last time a by-election was held as far into the summer holidays as July 25 was back in 1997 (although the Norwich North and Glasgow East ones came very close in 2009 and 2008 respectively). The last by-election in August, outside of the unusual circumstances of Fermanagh & S Tyrone in 1981, was the Birmingham Ladywood one in 1977. Clearly, there’s a long-standing reluctance to schedule them then.

However, if parliament waits until the House returns on September 3 before moving the writ, the by-election wouldn’t be until at least early October, possibly later still.

That, of course, is running directly into the climax of the Brexit debates when Boris will be expected to deliver withdrawal by 31 October, with or without a deal (which means without), and a majority of MPs will be trying to stop him from doing so – a battle which will be played for very high stakes and could easily end up with a Vote of No Confidence and/or a general election, as well as another Article 50 extension or even outright revocation.

As such, there’s a meaningful chance that the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election will never take place – although if it doesn’t, it’ll be the least of our worries.

David Herdson

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