01/08/2019

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Does Brexit’s Fate Hang on a Welsh By-Election?

Tomorrow’s vote poses a dilemma for Brexit supporters.

As a consultant to the NRO citizens’ advice bureau, I have been asked by Rich Lowry to advise anxious Brexiteers who are clamoring to know how they should vote in tomorrow’s parliamentary by-election (in U.S. English: special election) in the Welsh constituency of Brecon and Radnor. This may not be on the top of your to-do list, but it’s an unusual and potentially consequential election. Residents of Brecon and Radnor currently visiting the U.S. may want to know if they should book a plane ride home right away.

Some people would say it is important — notably Boris Johnson, who became Tory prime minister only a week ago, and Ms. Jo Swinson, who was elected leader of the U.K. Liberal Democrats in the same week. This election is shaping up to be a contest between the Tories, who hold the seat, and the Liberal Democrats, who are challenging for it. Labour is in the race too, but it doesn’t seem to be a contender.

If the Tories lose, that would cast a blight on the honeymoon that Boris seems to be enjoying with the voters since he announced a new cabinet with only four of May’s Remainers in it and declared that he would deliver Brexit by October 31 with or without a deal. If the Lib Dems do indeed emerge as victors, moreover, that would freshen the winner’s laurels, which have been withering on Swinson’s forehead since she said she wanted a second referendum but would oppose Brexit even if it won. She later retracted, but most people believe she was sincere the first time, and the damage was done. A clear win would remove the memory of that.

The stakes were raised further when the Greens, the Welsh Nationalists, and the “Independent” group of anti-Brexit MPs announced they would not field separate candidates but instead ask their supporters to vote Lib Dem. The election will thus be seen as a battle royal in which Leave and Boris are pitted against Remain and Swinson. And it’s a battle in which the odds were against the Tories even before the Greens etc. decided to throw their votes to Swinson’s Lib Dems — Brecon and Radnor is a natural Lib Dem seat and is represented by them in the Welsh Assembly. The Tories have won it only twice.

In these circumstances, how should Brexiteers vote? Oddly enough, it’s not an obvious or easy choice, because there’s also a Brexit-party candidate in the mix. Brexiteers must therefore decide which is more important to them: extending the voters’ honeymoon with Boris and Leave by giving him this little local victory; or keeping the Tories committed to a Real Brexit by showing that the threat from Nigel Farage is still very much alive. If they want to extend Boris’s honeymoon, voting Tory is the way to go. It’s as simple as that.

But there’s some nervousness among Tory Brexiteers that though Boris talks a strong Brexit game today, he may intend to strike a deal with the EU that mimics May’s disastrous Withdrawal Agreement minus the Northern Ireland backstop. That is what Whitehall, most MPs, the media, the cultural establishment, and the EU bureaucrats in Brussels all expect because, after all, it’s what they would do in Boris’s place. My interpretation, like Mark Steyn’s in his column of yesterday, is that Boris is indeed head-faking — no, not the Tory grass roots, but the EU bureaucrats, by cunningly promising to do what he really intends to do. That will completely disorient them and lead to endless complaints about Boris’s duplicity. To pull off this shameless honesty, however, he needs all the support he can get.

On the other hand, if you share the cynical Brussels view, you should probably vote for the Brexit party. Reports suggest that its local branch is small and ill-organized — the entire national Brexit party is less than two months old — and you won’t want it to suffer a humiliating defeat. Brexiteers recall knowingly how the decline of UKIP as a threat was almost miraculously followed by May’s watering down and then abandonment of her Brexit promises.

Rather than that, Brexiteers will want a good performance by Farage’s party to remind the Tories that it has the power to lose them the next election. Opinion polls show that Tory support has risen about ten points since Boris’s election, to 30 percent, putting it about seven points ahead of Labour. Those extra votes come from the Farage Irregulars, however, who still score in the twelve-to-15 range. If Boris were to switch back to May’s policy of appeasing Brussels, those votes would return to Nigel, who would then be level-pegging with the Tories. Boris could not win in the event of this kind of divided Right vote, and the logic of a deal with Farage would be irresistible. True Blue Tories who want Brexit above all else, therefore, will pray for forgiveness as they vote for Farage.

This betrayal may be too wounding for some. But be of good cheer. There is a way of voting that makes clear your determination to secure Brexit at all costs without voting for the Brexit party. That is to write across the ballot paper something like: “I will only ever vote for the Tories again after they and we have left the European Union fully and without strings.” Your vote will not be counted in the election, of course. It is a spoiled vote. Under the electoral rules, however, a spoiled vote has to be shown to all the candidates and their agents to ensure their consent to removing it from the count. If more than a handful of such votes with the same angry message turn up, the news will get back to the Tory, Lib Dem, and Labour HQs faster than light. In the minds of Boris and his colleagues, those votes will be added to the Brexit-party total in their estimate of public opinion. In some ways, these “spoiled” votes would be more effective than the votes going for another political party because they would signify that these voters feel strongly about the particular issue at stake.

Three final factors should be borne in mind when you judge the result — especially if, as seems possible, the Lib Dems win the seat from the Tories.

The first is that a Lib Dem win will be seen as a victory for tactical voting because of the decision by the Greens, etc. to throw their support behind the victors. That in turn will greatly strengthen the argument for the Tories to strike an electoral deal with Nigel Farage, giving Boris greater freedom of action to do so.

The second is that the Lib Dem victory would weaken Jeremy Corbyn more than anyone else and reduce the likelihood that the Labour leader might emerge from the chaotic circumstances of a hung Parliament as the next prime minister.

And the third is that the Tories will almost certainly lose a number of their usual votes because their candidate is the former MP whose expulsion on a technical expenses fraud led to the by-election in the first place. In a referendum in which 19 percent of the local electorate took part, voters chose to hold a new election, but the local Tories stuck with an MP who they thought had been unfairly treated. Embarrassing, very.

All that happened under the previous May regime, however, and Boris can shrug it off very convincingly. And most of the lessons therein serve Boris’s purposes.

The only really significant result tonight, therefore, would be either a Tory collapse — whether delivered by the Lib Dems or the Brexit party — or an unlikely Tory landslide. A decent win for the Lib Dems would give Swinson a honeymoon, but it would be a short one. Otherwise it’s Small Earthquake in Brecon and Radner — and in the present state of U.K. politics, that has a pleasingly soothing sound.

Original article here.

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