Everything about the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, which takes place tomorrow, ought to scream Liberal Democrat gain. The Conservative candidate, Chris Davies, was recalled as an MP by his constituents after being convicted of expenses fraud; an insurgent Brexit Party is likely to eat into the Tory vote; the Lib Dems already hold the coterminous Welsh Assembly constituency; they held the seat at Westminster from 1997 to 2015; and their candidate this time is their leader in Wales, Jane Dodds.
Taken together, all of those factors would appear to add up to a grim outlook for the Conservatives and a rosy one for the Liberal Democrats, whose working assumption for the entirety of its vigorous campaign has been that they will win comfortably. For evidence of how invested both party machines are in the race, look to their candidates and the luminaries who have come to Mid-Wales to support them. Jo Swinson has visited four times, Boris Johnson only once – and even then only because he happened to have been in Cardiff.
So it is unsurprising that Liberal Democrat MPs have been telling anyone in Westminster who will listen of the superb reception they have received on the doorstep, and of the near-certainty of a 13th MP joining their parliamentary party. But back in Brecon, there has been a faint but discernable change in the mood music. “We are confident we can do this,” says one cautious campaign source. “But it isn’t in the bag: we’re trying to overturn a big majority across an equally big seat. We are in a good place, but we know we need to keep working hard to get out the vote on polling day.” Activists have also noted the lack of any meaningful ground campaign from the Brexit Party, or a visit from Nigel Farage.
Could the jitters reflect a more resilient Conservative vote than anyone, most of all the Conservative Party, had expected? All the evidence suggests it is unlikely – not least because more than 10,000 voters have already gone to the polls to remove Davies as their MP. But if Lib Dem anxieties are borne out by a surprise result, then the consequences for Boris Johnson’s leadership and electoral strategy could be just as profound as the questions it will pose for Swinson.