New Tory leader to face tough by-election fight with Lib Dems

Voters in Brecon and Radnorshire have recalled their Conservative MP.

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Theresa May's successor will face a by-election in their first weeks in office after voters in Brecon and Radnorshire recalled their Conservative MP. 

Chris Davies, who won the mid-Wales seat from the Liberal Democrats in 2015, pleaded guilty to making a fraudulent expenses claim in March. He was fined £1,500 and ordered to complete 50 hours of unpaid work the following month, a sentence that automatically triggered the opening of a six-week recall petition in his constituency, which closed yesterday. 

It was signed by 10,005 voters — well over the 10 per cent threshold required to trigger a by-election that will offer the next Tory leader their first serious electoral test. 

Historically marginal, Brecon and Radnorshire was held by the Liberal Democrats from 1997 until Davies’ 2015 victory. He won a majority of 8,038 over Vince Cable’s party at the last general election. 

The Liberal Democrats have been primed to fight a by-election for some time and Jane Dodds, the party’s Welsh leader, was selected as their candidate in ahead of Davies’ conviction in March. 

Complicating the picture further for the Conservatives is the fact of Ukip’s relatively strong showing in 2015, when they won 8.3 per cent of the vote – a number that suggests the Brexit Party could well split the Conservative electorate. 

The by-election, which is likely to take place in late July or early Autumn, will offer an early indication of the next Tory leader’s ability to stem the tide of voters to both the Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party. Any defeat to the former would reduce the Tories' working majority to four and further empower opponents of no deal on the government benches. Should Boris Johnson be the prime minister who leads the campaign, anything other than a victory would raise questions about the viability of his electoral strategy. 

A win for the Liberal Democrats would also provide the party's new leader – to be elected on 23 July – with valuable early momentum and media attention.

However, if Davies is retained as the Conservative candidate for the by-election, as seems likely, then May's successor will have a ready-made local defence to deploy in the case of any defeat: his loss would be blamed on his criminal conviction rather than the party's national woes.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.