Welsh voters go to the polls in Brecon and Radnorshire by-election
Boris Johnson faces his first electoral test as Prime Minister today as Welsh voters head to the polls in a by-election which could cut his razor-thin Commons majority even further.
Despite speculation that he might avoid visiting Brecon and Radnorshire, where the incumbent Chris Davies is expected to lose after being successfully recalled over his expenses, the Daily Telegraph reveals that the Prime Minister committed to campaigning there within minutes of winning the Tory leadership.
Moreover, despite the candidate himself being accused of ducking hustings, word on the ground is that the Conservatives might have done better than expected.
Liberal Democrats are reportedly concerned that the sheer size of the rural seat has prevented them applying their usual ‘pavement-pounding’ tactics to full effect, and the party’s failure to manage expectations has elevated the contest to ‘must-win’ territory. Tories have also been given hope by the ‘Boris bounce’, a polling boost which has put them ahead of Labour in Wales’ Westminster voting intention as the Opposition record their lowest-ever result.
In fact, Labour appear to be being squeezed from both directions, losing poll position to the Conservatives at Westminster and to Plaid Cymru, the nationalists, at the Assembly. Mark Drakeford, Labour’s small-n nationalist First Minister, has responded to the latter by desperately trying to drum up the threat of independence.
Apart from illustrating once again the absurdity of claiming that devolution has weakened the separatists and strengthened the UK, the sharp divergence between these two Welsh polls also highlights a point I previously raised in my analysis of the Welsh Tories’ struggles at the Assembly: lots of pro-UK, pro-Tory voters don’t turn out for devolved elections. Leaning into this devocrats’ playground, which is the inclination of the current Assembly leadership, risks leaving space for a more committedly unionist party to start eating their vote.
But as we know, devocrat narratives exist independently of evidence or experience. Thus, two years after I asked whether Remainers would ever admit that Brexit was clearly proving much better for the Union than they had allowed, we have the Guardian’s Martin Kettle asking if Johnson might not end up being the handmaid of, of all things, Welsh independence. Spoiler: no.
Johnson vows not to be neutral on the Union as he woos the DUP
Wales wasn’t the only part of the UK to feature in the Prime Minister’s whistle-stop tour this week. He also visited Scotland (of which more below) and Northern Ireland.
His efforts in Ulster appear to break down into a few broad categories. First, the inevitable exercise in trying to get Stormont back on its feet. Second, providing another opportunity to square off against Leo Varadkar over the question of the backstop. Third, nurturing his relationship with the Government’s Democratic Unionist allies.
Devolution isn’t coming back anytime soon, and nobody seems to have squandered many column inches suggesting otherwise. At the very least, Sinn Fein have no reason to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly until Westminster has imposed liberalising moves on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Johnson’s tough line with Dublin hasn’t changed – and Owen Polley has mounted a strong case for it on CapX this week – but it has led to a fresh confrontation with Sinn Fein after the republicans demanded a referendum on Northern Ireland’s accession to the Republic in the event of a no-deal Brexit. They also warned the Prime Minister not to be the DUP’s ‘gofer’, picking up earlier criticisms about the close working relationship between the two parties.
In response, the Prime Minister hit back by insisting that he would never be neutral on the Union – echoing David Cameron’s language on the subject – and he denied being complacent about the peace process.
He also held a private meeting with senior DUP figures, including Arlene Foster, their leader, Nigel Dodds, who heads up their Westminster group, and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, their Commons chief whip. The former First Minister insisted that the terms of the two parties’ cooperation were not discussed, although as I wrote yesterday they will surely be renegotiated sooner rather than later.
If so, the DUP should press the Prime Minister on his commitment to protect ex-servicemen who served in Northern Ireland. This week Julian Smith, Johnson’s uninspiring choice of Northern Irish Secretary, refused to endorse his leader’s promises on the question. Has he gone native already, at a Government ministry already accused of ‘pandering to republicans’?
Johnson and Davidson call a truce in the face of separatists within and without
Not to be left out, Scotland also witnessed its first visit of Johnson’s premiership. Here his mission was not only to face down Nicola Sturgeon but also to try and mend relations with Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Tories, who are reportedly furious after his decision to dismiss David Mundell from the Cabinet.
He hit a bad note on both fronts by ignoring his Scottish leader’s warning not to attend on the First Minister at her official residence, Bute House. This gave nationalist activists the opportunity to stage a protest and boo Johnson for the cameras, an act immediately (and inevitably) interpreted by pro-Remain commentators as a spontaneous and organic event.
Nonetheless, media reports suggest that the two Tories have managed to put together a “fragile truce”. Davidson is striking a tough line against a no-deal Brexit but, as has been pointed out elsewhere, as she isn’t in Cabinet she isn’t required to support it. Furthermore Adam Tomkins, an MSP and close ally of Davidson, has taken to Twitter to set out that the Scottish Conservatives nonetheless agree that we must leave the EU in October. ‘Pursuing’ a no-deal exit is not the same as ‘preparing’ for one.
Meanwhile, Murdo Fraser and Andy Maciver have got their 2011 band back together and once again started pushing to split the Scottish Conservatives away from the UK party. This comes off the back of several articles by Stephen Daisley in which Tory sources – almost certainly MSPs – suggest that the Holyrood (and presumably local government) divisions of the Party could split off. Coincidentally, that is also Fraser and Maciver’s new proposal.
This has the air of a solution in search of a problem – it was supposed to be the only path to a centre-right revival in Scotland until Ruth Davidson delivered one by doing precisely the opposite -but the new plan is at least less damaging to the Union than the 2011 proposal, which involved taking the MPs with it and which I made the case against on CapX this week. However, the idea that ‘federalism’ will save the UK getting another airing this week – in the Daily Telegraph, of all places.