LONDON — It was just a one-off race out in a small district in Wales, where sheep outnumber voters, an off-year by-election to replace a Conservative Party lawmaker who was sacked by petition for cheating on his expense account. Normally, it would be back-page news.
But the Conservative Party candidate lost on Thursday night — and a member of the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrat party won — and suddenly Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s working majority in Parliament has been reduced to a single seat.
Johnson, in office just a week, inherited a minority government from his ousted predecessor Theresa May. Johnson holds a wafer-thin majority in Parliament with support from the 10 lawmakers in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
Now Johnson has to pass his “do-or-die” Brexit through a potentially hostile House of Commons, where he has just a one-member advantage.
Remember May’s Brexit deal? It was defeated three times in Parliament. Some Conservatives thought her deal was too weak. Other Tories have announced they will oppose any no-deal Brexit. Some members of Parliament oppose leaving the European Union altogether.
In a flash, the new math has only gotten worse for Johnson.
If enough anti-Brexit rebels in his own Conservative Party balk at Johnson’s vow to take Britain out of the E.U., “no ifs, no buts,” with his promised new, better Brexit deal or with no deal at all, the renegades could bring the U.K.’s scheduled departure in October to a halt.
If Johnson’s pledge to get Britain out by October is threatened, many assume he might call a snap election to seek a greater majority in Parliament — but this result makes it unclear how he and his party would fare.
In the Brecon district by-election in Wales on Thursday, the ousted Conservative, Chris Davies, tried to hold onto his seat but was beaten by the Liberal Democrat candidate, Jane Dodds.
What makes this doubly interesting is that the Liberal Democrats have emerged as the most potent voice in British politics for stopping Brexit and have increased their clout by forging a “Remain Alliance.”
In the election in Wales, the Liberal Democrats teamed up with other anti-Brexit parties, including the Greens and Wales’ Plaid Cymru, which both agreed not to stand in the election to increase the Liberal Democrat candidate’s chances.
“Boris Johnson’s shrinking majority makes it clear that he has no mandate to crash us out of the E.U.,” said the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, Jo Swinson. on Friday. She added that she envisioned the “Remain Alliance” to grow to fight Johnson’s Brexit.
“The country doesn’t have to settle for Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn,” she told BBC Radio, referring to opposition Labour Party leader, who can’t seem to make up his mind whether Labour supports leaving or remaining in the European Union.
The winner in Wales, Jane Dodd, said the Liberal Democrats “are the party that want to stay as part of the United Kingdom. We want to stay in Europe. We see that as healthy for our communities. We have to stay in Europe and we have to stay in this bigger team.”
Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian politician and a leader on Brexit in the European Parliament, tweeted his congratulations to the Liberal Democrats, asserting “the party goes from strength to strength & it really could change everything.”
The Liberal Democrats took 13,826 votes with the Conservative Party 12,401, a margin of 1,425 that overturned the Tories’ previous majority of more than 8,000.
The voting district backed leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Johnson visited Wales on Wednesday, where he was jeered. The new prime minister met with chicken farmers and sheep herders who are worried that if Britain crashes out of Europe without new customs and trade arrangements, their roasters and lamb chops could immediately face high tariffs in Europe that would make their meats far less competitive.
“October, November and December are peak times to sell Welsh lamb,” Dodd said on Friday. “There are two issues for farmers — firstly, how are they going to cope with 40 percent tariffs on their lamb exports. The second is mental health. Farming is the profession with the highest suicide rate. These are real concerns.”