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Polls close in Brecon & Radnorshire: will the chickens come home for PM Johnson?

On his first visit to Wales as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson posed for pictures with chickens but he avoided the voters during a brief trip to Brecon. Credit: PA

You may have read elsewhere that the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election is a foregone conclusion, that the Conservatives will lose it and the Liberal Democrats will gain a stunning victory. Don’t take that for granted because this by-election isn’t a foregone conclusion.

It’s still more likely than not that the Lib Dems will win it but whatever the result I think it will be very close.

What I'm hearing tonight are cries of "what if?" from the Tory camp. What if more cabinet ministers had come campaigning for their candidate, Chris Davies? What if Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns hadn't come to the constituency just once, on a visit to the Royal Welsh Show? And what if Boris Johnson hadn't disappointed voters who turned out to see him in Brecon on Tuesday, when he briefly visited a factory but avoided the crowd?

That sense of regret has turned to anger at what's been described to me as "hanging Chris out to dry", meaning the briefing that got underway at Westminster this morning. Downing Street sources spoke of "barely contained rage" inside Number 10 that Theresa May had let the Brecon & Radnorshire Conservatives reselect Chris Davies after he was recalled as an MP following his conviction for faking expenses receipts.

The suggestion at Westminster is that with a different candidate, the "Boris bounce" in the opinion polls means that the Tories could have held the seat. But on the ground in Brecon & Radnorshire, the Conservatives are wondering what more wholehearted backing from the new Prime Minister and his team could have achieved.

The problem is that many other commentators have viewed it through the prism of Westminster politics and from the perspective of London. There’s no doubt that the wider context of Brexit, Parliament’s crisis and the Tory party turmoil, is important but there are other factors at play.

Chris Davies and his wife on their way to vote in the by-election Credit: PA

They include the personal popularity of the former MP Chris Davies and the number of people willing to give him a second chance. Those who saw him in his home environment of the Royal Welsh show last week will have seen the former clearly while the answer to the latter is: many more than you would expect and certainly more than seemed likely when he lost the seat as a result of the recall petition in June.

He’d been convicted of falsifying invoices for an expenses claim that he'd made early on his time as MP. An honest mistake he said; proof that he’s untrustworthy said his opponents.

He’s also a Brexiteer, albeit one who reluctantly backed Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement in the Commons. That’s made it a little harder for the Brexit Party to campaign against him. In fact its campaign has focused largely on the trust issue rather than Brexit.

On the other side of that argument, there’s been a great deal of attention paid to the ‘Remain Alliance’ which has made its first appearance here with Plaid Cymru and the Greens standing aside in order to make it more likely that the Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds can win.

Jane Dodds (centre) campaigning with Lib Dem supporters during the by-election Credit: PA

Several things may have made that less effective than might have been thought. Firstly Plaid Cymru and the Greens were never big players in this constituency although their votes might still be enough to swing it if it is close.

Secondly Labour’s continued ambiguous position on Brexit may be driving many of its members crazy but may also mean that Labour leavers in Brecon and Radnorshire won’t defect to the Brexit Party this time while Labour Remainers continue to cross their fingers and stick with their party rather than lend their votes to the Lib Dems.

Anyway, despite being the ‘Remain Alliance’ candidate in B & R, Jane Dodds has been determined to make the election about local issues, speaking up about those matters at every opportunity.

Ah, the local question. B & R, people keep telling me, is one of ‘those’ constituencies where it matters how local you are. That’s why, they say, there’s residual suspicion for those not considered ‘local enough’ like Jane Dodds and Des Parkinson, even if to you and me they seem to be pretty much from that neck of the woods.

All of which, I think, makes this much harder to call than many in Westminster think. And why I think the anonymous government spin making it clear that the new leadership is angry that the previous regime had allowed Chris Davies to be reselected could come back to bite them on the backside.

The noises off of Brexit, Boris Johnson and the turmoil of our politics could still drown out the local voices in Brecon and Radnorshire. But if you’ve ever been at a Powys livestock market or the Royal Welsh show, you’ll know those voices can be pretty loud.

As polling closes, early indications suggest turnout could be between 40 -50%

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While a Liberal Democrat landslide was predicted, reports from the count suggest the ''Boris bounce'' might be helping the Conservatives in the poll.

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As for Labour, sources show it could be a bad night for them.

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