Since their nadir, their lowest ebb of 2015, there has been a lot of talk over the years of a “Lib Dem fightback”.
Mostly, it has been utter nonsense. For years they have rested in the doldrums.
No longer. It’s real. It’s happening; it’s changing everything.
This was a seat the Lib Dems should have won. They’ve held it for most of the last three decades. They hold the equivalent Welsh Assembly seat. They have a strong local presence. The circumstances of the by-election could not have been more propitious – the Tory MP had been found guilty of expenses fraud.
Nonetheless, the Tory majority was a substantial one, over 8,000. It required a 10% swing to win – it was no small feat.
As a result, the Lib Dems have a Welsh seat for the first time since 2017- for their new leader in Wales, no less. The party will hope it is a foundation for a revival in their old Welsh heartlands.
The “remain alliance” obviously helped matters. Plaid Cymru and the Greens didn’t run in the seat to give the Lib Dems a clear path. Without it the majority would have been tighter, or potentially non-existent.
The Lib Dems will say this is a big victory for remain. Indeed overturning a big Tory majority, as the unalloyed, anointed remain party, in the fortnight the Tories appointed a new prime minister, effectively committed to no deal, is a huge psychological (and parliamentary) boost to the pro-remain forces of the country.
If it were the other way around and a Lib Dem had been displaced by a Brexit Party or Tory candidate, then we surely know how the narrative would have been spun. That the country wants to leave, at any cost – and soon. The reverse was true in mid-Wales.
But, before remainers crack open the Veuve Clicquot, they ought to bear this in mind: if you take the Lib Dem vote (the only party expressly pledged to remain or hold a new referendum) their share of the vote was 43.5%. Even if you add Labour’s (a party with a, let’s say, nebulous position) the sum is 48.7%.
By contrast, if you combine the parties pledged to leave without a deal if necessary (the Tories, the Brexit Party and UKIP) the total is 50.3%. 48.7% vs 50.3%. In other words, not a million miles away from how Brecon and Radnorshire voted in the original 2016 referendum. Not much has changed and the mandate is muddied.
All in all, the Tories won’t despair, too deeply. Their vote held up alright, in the circumstances. Nonetheless, the Brexit Party (which did badly and lost votes back to the Tories) still cost them the seat. It will give succour to hard Brexiter Tories who say they have to press on with no deal and nullify their more extreme cousins.
But there’s another lesson for the Tories to learn too. For there are scores of seats which the Tories hold narrowly against the Lib Dems. Renewed Lib Dem success for the latter will cost the former dearly. Never forget, the only majority the Conservatives have formed for thirty years came at the cannibalism of Lib Dem seats. Any Lib Dem rebirth will cost the Conservatives dearly.
In the meantime Boris Johnson’s government hangs by a thread, though a thicker thread than the headlines might suppose given there are a few independents who might vote with the government when it comes to the crunch. Still, plenty of crucial Brexit divisions have come down to a single vote. There are more to come. It could well be that this election is of true historic importance.
But in sum, Brecon confirms one of the big political themes of 2019: a true Lib Dem renaissance which significantly changes the calculus of the electoral battle, for both the Tories and Labour.
Few, would have thought it, even a few months ago.
Ain’t that the beauty of politics.