Local U.K. Election Serves Up Early Test of a ‘Boris Bounce’

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LONDON—British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s grip on power will be tested during a district election in rural Wales that could further erode his government’s control in Parliament and raise the prospect of a national election in the fall.

Voters in the rural Welsh district of Brecon and Radnorshire went to the polls Thursday to select a new lawmaker after the previous Conservative incumbent was ousted after being found guilty of expenses fraud.

The normally mundane vote has emerged as an early litmus test of Mr. Johnson’s ability to rally a fractious Conservative Party behind his bold promise to abruptly cut ties with the European Union and leave without a divorce deal on Oct. 31, if EU leaders refuse to negotiate a new accord.

The election has assumed outsize importance because of deep divisions within the Tory Party over Brexit and the Johnson government’s fragile hold on Parliament.

Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party doesn’t have a majority in Parliament and relies on an alliance with a small Northern Irish party to rule. This grouping has a majority of three votes in the lower house—defeat in Brecon would reduce it to one.

That razor-thin margin leaves Mr. Johnson vulnerable to revolts in his own party. Several Conservative lawmakers have threatened to bring the government down if Mr. Johnson goes through with his pledge to yank the U.K. out of the EU without an agreement aimed at smoothing the split with Britain’s largest trading partner.

The Conservatives have benefited from a rise in the polls following Mr. Johnson’s nomination last week, which has been dubbed the “Boris bounce.”

Many Conservative lawmakers have swung behind Mr. Johnson in the hopes that his charisma and energy would deliver a victory in a general election.

On the Edge

If the Conservative candidate loses the Aug. 1 by-election for a vacant seat, the government majority will be down to a single vote.

Seats by party in the U.K. Parliament

Seats by party in the U.K. Parliament

Seats by party in the U.K. Parliament

Seats by party in the U.K. Parliament

If the Conservatives win in Wales, it will be feted in the party as proof that Mr. Johnson’s political stardust and his Brexit pledge have galvanized his base.

That may ease the pressure to call a general election for now. It would also give him more comfort that even if Conservative lawmakers still bring the government down, Mr. Johnson could hope to win a bigger majority in a general election, strengthening his hand within the party and in talks with the EU.

“If it is proved that the Conservatives can hold on to a by-election of that kind, they might be more confident of winning an election,” says Tony Travers, a visiting professor in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics.

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However, a loss in Wales—as is currently predicted by the polls—would leave Mr. Johnson’s government hanging by a thread and even more vulnerable to a revolt within his party.

Mr. Johnson has said he doesn’t want to hold a general election before he delivers Brexit, fearing his party would be heavily punished by the British public for failing to deliver on this key manifesto promise.

However, given his government’s fragility in Parliament, Mr. Johnson is already in campaign mode. He has spent the week traveling around the U.K. including a visit to Wales, where he was filmed holding a chicken and reassuring farmers that the government will support them after Brexit. The prime minister is expected to continue his tour round Britain during August to build momentum around his Brexit policy.

A fresh election would likely encounter voter fatigue and anger. Brexit has been twice delayed. In addition to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Britons have had national elections in 2015 and 2017. British general elections are only supposed to happen every five years.

Parliament returns from summer recess in early September. Unless an election is immediately triggered then, the vote would likely take place after the U.K.’s Brexit deadline, raising the possibility of an abrupt split in the meantime.

The by-election in Wales offers a taste of what could happen in a general election. In Brecon, locals voted 52% to leave the EU during the referendum in 2016, mirroring the result of the national vote.

However, in an unusual move in British politics, the Conservatives are facing off against an alliance of three political parties that want to cancel Brexit. It is unclear this kind of alliance can be repeated across the country in a general election.

The district election was triggered after sitting Conservative lawmaker Chris Davies was ousted after he was convicted of making false expenses claims. Despite nearly a fifth of the area’s voters signing a petition to replace him, Mr. Davies is standing for re-election as the Conservative candidate.

The favorite to win is the Liberal Democrat candidate, whose party has pledged to hold a second Brexit referendum in a bid to stop the U.K.’s exit from the EU. In Brecon, the Liberal Democrat cause is helped by the fact that the Green Party and a local Welsh party aren’t fielding candidates.

The Welsh election is also a test of the staying power of the Brexit Party, a euroskeptic grouping that is campaigning on a single issue: Get the U.K. out of the EU.

The Conservatives have hemorrhaged votes to the Brexit Party since Britain’s exit from the trade bloc was delayed this spring. Mr. Johnson is hoping that his promise to deliver the divorce from the EU will drain the Brexit Party of some of its strength.

If he fails, the Brexit Party could split the Conservative vote. “If they lost it badly that would spook a lot of Conservatives,” said Mr. Travers.

Write to Max Colchester at max.colchester@wsj.com

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