After last Thursday’s disappointing result, the Conservative Party has seen its government’s majority reduced to just one, as the Liberal Democrats gained the Brecon and Radnorshire seat in a tightly fought by-election. New leader Jo Swinson enjoyed an early electoral victory as the so-called ‘Boris bounce’ turned out not to be as powerful as many had hoped.
The most notable aspect of the reaction to the result has been the Conservative Party’s response to the Brexit Party’s decision to field a candidate. Conservatives have complained that the Brexit vote was split between the two Leave-backing parties, allowing yet another Remain-leaning politician to enter Parliament. There is an undeniable degree of truth to this argument; the combined Tory-Brexit vote outweighed the Lib Dems’ tally. However, the Conservatives have no right to complain about Nigel Farage’s decision, for two main reasons.
Firstly, the Conservative Party committed the exact same sin in the last by-election we had. In Peterborough, Labour only beat the Brexit Party by the skin of their teeth. Had the Conservatives stood aside in that poll, Farage’s party would have won. That would have meant another Brexit-supporting MP, rather than a Corbynite Remainer. If the Conservatives expect the Brexit Party to stand aside for them, they should set an example by pulling out when they have less of a chance of winning themselves. Expecting something from someone without offering to do the same in return is rather hypocritical.
Secondly, this entire affair could have been avoided if the Conservative Party supported electoral reform. In the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum, the Conservatives campaigned against changing the voting system for Westminster elections because it worked against their interests at the time. Ironically, had AV been in place in Brecon, the Conservative Party would probably have soared to victory. It is hypocritical for the Conservatives to demand the Brexit Party stand aside for them, when they could have backed electoral reform which would have made that unnecessary.
There is also hypocrisy in the Conservative Party’s condemnation of the Liberal Democrats for entering into a ‘dirty’ electoral pact with Plaid Cymru and the Green Party. The Tories did exactly the same thing in the 2016 Richmond Park by-election, in which they did not field a candidate in an effort to boost independent Zac Goldsmith’s chances of defeating the Liberal Democrats.
The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election has led to an onslaught of hypocritical and somewhat hysterical lines of attack from the Conservative Party. This works in nobody’s favour, least of all the party itself. If the Conservatives want to improve their performance in future by-elections – and, indeed, general elections – they urgently need to reconsider their stances on electoral reform and election pacts. If not, the price they pay may be far greater than a slightly reduced majority.