In the United Kingdom, this last Thursday 1st August 2019, there was a by-election in Wales, in Brecon and Radnorshire. There was an unusual level of interest in this by-election, as it was held in the first week of Mr Boris Johnson’s premiership. And indeed, it was portrayed as a troubling sign for Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party, as the seat was won by the rival Liberal Democrats (a party which supports remaining in our European Union).

A by-election is an election for a single seat, held outside the regular timetable of elections due to special circumstances, in this case the sitting deputy having commited expenses fraud.

Some of the British media have portrayed this by-election as part of Mr Johnson’s “baptism of fire”. The Guardian has focused on the reaction of other Conservative parliamentarians.

Things are not as dire as they seem for Mr Johnson, and a possible message he could take from the election is to stay the course, leaving our Union. To find out why, let’s take a look at the results.

2019 Brecon and Radnorshire by-election Results

Liberal DemocratJane Dodds13,82643.46+14.36
ConservativeChristopher Davies12,40138.98-9.62
Brexit PartyDes Parkinson3,33110.47N/A
LabourTom Davies1,6805.28-12.42
Monster Raving LoonyLady Lily the Pink3341.05N/A
UKIPLiz Phillips2420.76-0.64

The Liberal Democrat victory was with a 4.5% margin, which translates to ~1400 votes. The Liberal Democrats gained 43.5% of the vote. The combined Conservative and Brexit Party vote was 49.5%.

This had been a Liberal Democrat seat from 1997 to 2015 and has been a Liberal Democrat – Conservative marginal since 1987. Thus, it is not surprising that under a first-past-the-post system, the seat has been retaken by the Liberal Democrats. This was also greatly helped by the tactical withdrawal of Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, on the basis of a Remain-party electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats.

This is in contrast to the competition between the Conservative Party and the Brexit Party. Indeed, one might make the argument that without the Brexit Party, all other things being equal, the seat would have remained Conservative in this by-election, and similarly if Plaid Cymru and the Green Party had run their own candidates. Given their past performance, although it’s not a guarantee, there is a high likelihood they would have gotten more than 4.5% of the vote combined.  First-past-the-post is an electoral system in which divided voter blocs don’t exert any influence.

It is impossible to know how much of the increase in the Liberal Democrat vote was from the Conservatives or from the Labour Party. It is the received wisdom that Green Party and Plaid Cymru voters would not defect to the Conservatives though.

Thus, one could make the argument that to stave off the Brexit Party challenge, Boris Johnson should stay the course, and that otherwise he will have to contend with a virtual split of the Conservative Party. One could also make the argument that the Conservatives are losing votes to the Liberal Democrats due to their Brexit stance. However, given the 8% UKIP vote in the same constituency in 2015, the first possibility appears more likely.

First Past the Post has usually worked to the advantage of the Conservative Party for most of the 20th century. First with the split in the Liberal Party in the first three decades of the century and then with the 80’s split of the Labour Party. It is interesting to see FPTP working against the Conservatives at last.

Nicolas Mavreas was born on what later became Europe’s eastern frontier, on the island of Cyprus. He lived through Europe’s enlargement and the turmoil of the early 2010’s. After completing his two-year compulsory national service, he went to the University of Cambridge to study. He observed the Brexit debate and result. Being a European in another member-state sharpened his awareness of the European “we” and spurred on a search to understand the European interest.