Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Boris on the ropes already... a general election looks inevitable

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Boris Johnson was already in a precarious position in the House of Commons, and now he's clinging onto power by his fingertips.

The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election reduced his government's overall majority to one.

That's a high-wire act for any Prime Minister, let alone one facing the massive challenge of Brexit with a deeply divided parliamentary party.

Yet the loss of the Welsh seat isn't as bad for Mr Johnson as it may initially appear. There clearly was a Boris bounce and it's churlish to pretend otherwise.

A poll by Number Cruncher Politics before he became Tory leader put the Conservatives at 28% and the Brexit Party at 20% in the constituency. They came home at 39% and 10% respectively.

So Mr Johnson has reversed his party's decline under Theresa May and brought around half the voters who had defected to Nigel Farage's party back into the Tory fold.

The Liberal Democrats won the seat on a 43% vote so had the Brexit Party stood aside, the Tories would have held the seat.

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Clearly, Mr Farage's party can cost the Conservatives seats.

Mr Johnson has repeatedly ruled out the prospect of Tory-Brexit Party electoral pact. But if Brexit is delivered on October 31, then the raison d'etre for Mr Farage's party disappears.

The Tories were never expected to win Brecon. They were hugely disadvantaged by the circumstances in which the by-election was called, and the choice of candidate by the local party was hardly wise.

The vote was triggered by a petition of recall after MP Chris Davies was found guilty of submitting fake expenses claims.

He was reselected as the candidate, and many Johnson loyalists are angry that, under Theresa May, the party's central leadership didn't intervene to stop him standing.

The by-election puts the Liberal Democrats very much back on the political map after they were obliterated in 2017.

The result gives a huge boost to the 'Remain Alliance' which saw Plaid Cymru and the Greens standing aside to ensure victory for Jo Swinson's party.

Labour was almost in deposit losing territory with an abysmal 5%.

Yet too much should not be read into that performance. The party hasn't been competitive in the constituency in years and didn't put much effort into the campaign.

While Labour has a very poor by-election record under Jeremy Corbyn, it won't be such a pushover at a general election. The party will table a vote of no confidence in Johnson's government but sources say not to expect it until October.

Labour would be more hopeful of winning the support of Tory rebels after the Conservatives annual conference takes place in the last week of September.

Labour also knows that it mightn't win such a vote. Jeremy Corbyn wouldn't want to be heading to his own conference in the third week of September with a swaggering Boris having survived and rubbing Labour noses in his victory.

Although technically the Tories have a working majority of just one, Charlie Elphicke, a Tory MP currently suspended from the party over sexual assault allegations, is likely to vote with the government. The DUP's support remains crucial to BoJo surviving yet there remain so many other forces at play as well.

Former Labour MPs Frank Field, John Woodock and Ian Austin so loathe Mr Corbyn they could back Boris in a no confidence vote.

The Prime Minister could possibly also secure the support or abstention of up to 20 Labour Leave MPs, including Kate Hoey and Sarah Champion, in knife-edge Brexit votes.

Johnson's wafer-thin majority makes a general election almost inevitable. He should just about survive the next few months, but it will be messy. BoJo won't be flying down the political zip-wire in style.

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