The Lib Dems win in Richmond Park won’t stop Brexit, but it is significant for other reasons.

Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night's by-election in Richmond Park.
Zac Goldsmith, who lost his House of Commons seat in last night’s by-election in Richmond Park.

The result of yesterday’s by-election in Richmond Park is an interesting one in that although it may foreshadow a somewhat remarkable political comeback for the Liberal Democrats, it is extremely unlikely to actually change anything.

When Zach Goldsmith forced this by-election following his resignation from Parliament over the Government’s approval of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, he did so to honour a promise he had made to his prospective constituents prior to being elected in the 2010 and 2015 General Elections. He hoped that he would be comfortably re-elected to served as a quasi-independent champion for those against the expansion of Heathrow. But, with all the major candidates running in this by-election being against Heathrow expansion the Liberal Democrats were able to turn the by-election into a referendum on Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, with candidate Sarah Olney pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 and to “resist Brexit in its current form”. In Richmond Park, whose residents voted more than two-to-one in favour of remaining in the European Union, this strategy seems to have worked. The Liberal Democrats were able to overturn Goldsmith’s majority of 23,000 with a swing of 30.4 percent, to ultimately win by almost 2,000 votes which, in a seat which Goldsmith was widely expected to retain, is quite some margin. The Lib Dems pro-EU stance clearly helped them win, but as Editor of The Spectator (and Richmond Park constitutent) Fraser Nelson recognises, it was also “it was a victory for good, old-fashioned campaigning. And the fact that it was, in effect, a two horse race. A referendum on Zac, and his decision to call a by-election.” The two-horse race point is particularly significant with the results suggesting that many who would ordinarily back Labour, switched to the Lib Dems to block Goldsmith. Labour candidate Christian Wolmar received 1,515 votes, which is less than the number of Labour members who live in Richmond Park, whilst there was also reports that many Labour activists were campaigning on behalf of the Lib Dems in the days before the vote. What this comes back to though is Goldsmith’s Brexit stance which, in a constituency as pro-Remain as Richmond Park, was never going to go down well.

But, although the Lib Dems victory was impressive, and there pro-EU message clearly had a significant effect, it is not really going to change the direction of travel. In short, despite what the Lib Dems have promised in campaigning for this by-election, Brexit will still go ahead. The Lib Dems now have nine MPs who will vote against Article 50. The SNP have indicated that all their 55 MPs will vote against Article 50, whilst five Labour MPs (David Lammy, Catherine West, Daniel Zeichner, Geraint Davies, and Owen Smith) have said that they will vote against the triggering of Article 50, as has Conservative MP Ken Clarke. This would make seventy MPs voting against Article 50, not nearly enough to ‘overturn’ the referendum by voting down Article 50. So to suggest that last night’s Lib Dem victory in Richmond Park will change the course of Brexit is pretty absurd.

Where it might have an effect however, is in highlighting the views of those 48 percent of voters who didn’t back Brexit, which may in turn lead to the Government pursuing more of a ‘soft Brexit’, i.e. leaving the European Union but looking to remain a part of the Single Market. This is something that many in the Government would likely support, and David Davis and Boris Johnson have both indicated that they may support something like this. Davis indicated yesterday that the Government would strongly consider a deal which involved paying into the EU budget in return for Single Market membership, whilst Boris Johnson is reported to have sad that he’s in favour of the continuing free movement of people between the EU and the UK.

However, overall this by-election is set to have a relatively small (if any) impact upon the direction of policy. Where it may have an impact is in the re-alignment of the political parties on the back of a Liberal Democrat resurgence. As Leader, Tim Farron has looked to establish the Lib Dems as a so-called ‘party of the 48 percent’, and the results in the by-elections in Richmond Park, and last month in Witney, suggest that he is being successful in doing so. Farron described last night’s result as, “ a remarkable, come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives.” It seems a bit strong to suggest that it will terrify the Conservatives, but it could certainly give the Conservatives some difficulty at the next General Election. Remember that it was typically Conservative surges in Liberal Democrat seats which secured them their majority at the 2015 General Election, and many of these seats like Bath, Cheltenham, Kingston and Surbiton, and Twickenham voted Remain in the EU Referendum. It would be unsurprising to see swings towards the Lib Dems in these constituencies similar to what we’ve seen in Witney and Richmond Park. In addition there are the likes of Wokingham and Chipping Barnet which both voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU but are occupied by Conservative MPs who backed Brexit, John Redwood and Theresa Villiers respectively. It would be unsurprising for the Lib Dems to also challenge in these seats.

But, arguably it is not the Conservatives who are giving the Lib Dems a way back. Given that the Conservatives have a huge lead in the polls (with a recent poll putting them on 44 percent — a lead of sixteen over Labour) losing a few seats to the Lib Dems isn’t really going be a blow to their chances of forming a majority government at the next general election. It is Labour who should really be fearing the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s terrible showing in Richmond Park highlighted their weaknesses, and this could allow the Liberal Democrats to squeeze them nationwide. Labour are going to forced to take a decision on whether or not they back Brexit very soon. Given the number of Labour constituencies which backed Brexit, the Labour Party are going to be forced to back Brexit or face seeing a UKIP surge under Paul Nuttall do the same to them in Northern England and Wales, as the SNP did to them in Scotland. But, this stance could have a negative effect in the urban areas which voted Labour in 2015 but also voted to remain the EU. It remains to be seen, but it does not look as if these voters have particularly warmed to Jeremy Corbyn, and so their vote is arguably up for grabs. What the Richmond Park result (and Labour’s terrible showing) highlights is the Labour Party’s complete lack of a voice on Europe.

The vote in Richmond Park was effectively a futile protest vote against the UK leaving the EU, and as a result it won’t exactly have the Conservatives running for cover. However, the same cannot be said of Labour. What the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats proves is that they have opponents everywhere. In Scotland, the SNP took almost all of their seats in 2015, and Labour show no signs of winning them back, having fallen to third in the polls behind the Scottish Conservatives who have surged on the back of Ruth Davidson’s strong leadership. In England, the Conservatives dominate Labour in all of the swing seats which are essential to forming a majority government — in the South and West of England, Labour are polling lower than ever. In the North of England, this week’s election of Paul Nuttall as the new leader of UKIP could put the squeeze on Labour at the next general election in areas which voted heavily for Brexit. Whilst the Lib Dems resurgence proves that Labour can’t be complacent in urban areas either.

Whilst the Liberal Democrats will be celebrating their win in Richmond Park and what they may see as a nationwide resurgence, Labour will be worried, as they are now truly teetering on a cliff edge.

The resurgence of the Lib Dems should have the Conservatives worried.

tim-farron-getty
Tim Farron’s party surged into second place in the Witney by-election. 

Yesterday, the residents of Witney cast their votes in a by-election to decide who would succeed former Prime Minister David Cameron as the constituency’s Member of Parliament. As a safe Conservative seat, Witney was rated the tenth safest Conservative seat following the 2015 General Election, the result of this by-election was never really in doubt. However, what everyone was watching for was how Theresa May’s new Conservative Party would do in David Cameron’s old constituency; and in the first electoral test following the EU Referendum, how would the opposition parties fare.

As expected, the Conservative Party retained the seat, with Councillor Robert Courts winning 17,313 votes for a majority of 5,702. However, although this seems like a comfortable win, when compared to the result in this constituency in the 2015 General Election, it is anything but.

In the 2015 General Election, David Cameron won a huge 35,201 votes, which led to a very safe majority of 25,155. Admittedly given that this was only a by-election, and that the country at large is suffering from electoral fatigue, the turnout was quite low (just 46.8% compared to 73.3% in 2015). However, it is the percentage of the vote which is significant. In 2015, David Cameron won 60.2% of the votes in Witney. Yesterday, Robert Courts won just 45%, a huge fall from 2015.

The main cause of this has been attributed to a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats who won just 6.8% of the vote in 2015, but managed to increase this to 30.2% yesterday. This resurgence tallies with the Liberal Democrats’ surge in party membership following the EU Referendum, where they were the only party to come out in favour of a second referendum. Party figures suggested that in the days after the referendum, the Liberal Democrats gained 15,000 new members, and their membership has continued to grow since. This is perhaps due to a combination of reasons, but chief among these is the Lib Dems pro-European stance, as well as the centrists who supported the Conservatives in 2015, flocking to a different party due to dissatisfaction with the more right-wing new Government.

Given that Witney is a constituency which voted 53.7% in favour of remaining in the European Union, and the Conservative candidate Robert Courts supported Vote Leave, the Liberal Democrats made a big thing about their pro-European stance in this referendum, and it appeared to pay dividends as they surged past Labour into second place.

This huge swing of 19.3% to the Lib Dems could statistically wipe out the current Conservative majority in the House of Commons were to it be replicated across the country. Statistically speaking there are twenty-six seats where the Conservative advantage over the Liberal Democrats is less than this, and where they could therefore prosper in a general election. Of course, we must consider the fact that the Liberal Democrats absolutely threw the kitchen sink at this by-election in a way that would be impossible in a full on general election. Party Leader Tim Farron made five visits to Witney over the course of the by-election campaign. In a full general election campaign there is no chance that he would have the time to do this, and in addition the Liberal Democrats would not be able to commit as many party staff to a single constituency.

However, the result of this by-election is telling in several ways. Given how the Conservative have underperformed relative to their polling numbers, it shows that the Government isn’t nearly as popular as polling has suggested, and that the Government’s current haphazard handling of Brexit has lost them some support. In addition, it further shows the malaise affecting the Labour Party, which has the potential to lose them their place as the main parliamentary opposition. Labour suffered a significant reduction in their share of the vote, falling back into third place. It is realistic to suggest that many centrist or left of centre voters who may typically have voted Labour in this by-election, were put off my the way Jeremy Corbyn has dragged the party to the left, and so instead cast their vote in favour of the Lib Dems.

Overall, this result suggests the Theresa May is not as close to the political centre as she seems to think. Whether voters are put off my the government’s handling of Brexit, or whether it is policies like the expansion of grammar schools which is causing the problem, we don’t know. But what is certain is that Theresa May has to do a lot more to appeal to the centre if she wants to be Prime Minister in the long term. This is something David Cameron did particularly well, moving the Conservatives away from the divisive policies which resonated with their base, and instead moving them toward the political centre. By bringing back policies like grammar schools, Theresa May has done the opposite, and this could cost her dearly in the polls.

Senior Conservatives have suggested that the result is not so bad, because it was pretty much the same as what David Cameron was getting in his early days as an MP. This is true, David Cameron did also receive 45% of the vote in Witney in the 2001 General Election. However, they should consider the overall result of this election, which resulted in a huge Labour majority. Given that the share of the vote in safe seats often indicates the level of nationwide support for a party, the Conservatives should be very worried about this result. If they are only getting the same share of the vote that they got at a general election in which they suffered a devastating defeat, then what will the result be nationwide when a general election is next held?

Conservatives can perhaps take comfort from the unelectability and unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but they should by no means think that this guarantees them an increased majority at the next general election. With a current working majority of just sixteen, the government can’t afford to lose many seats, and so they should not be ignoring the significance of this result. The Liberal Democrats definitely have the potential to cause them serious harm in a general election.

In this by-election, the Liberal Democrats made a great play out of the fact that Witney voted Remain, yet the Conservative candidate had supported Leave. There are many other constituencies where the same is true, and the Lib Dems can use this to gain an advantage at a general election. Perhaps a better test than Witney of whether this surge will be replicated is the by-election which is probably forthcoming in Richmond Park, where Leave backing MP Zac Goldsmith is expected to resign and stand as an independent due to opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport. This is a seat which the Liberal Democrats held from the seat’s inception in 1997 until 2010, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could win it back in a by-election.

In any case, yesterday’s by election should give Theresa May food for thought. Although she has been keen to say that she doesn’t want to hold an early election, it is looking increasingly like she is going to have to. If this week’s House of Commons vote for chairof the Brexit Select Committee is any indication, MPs may not vote in favour of the government’s EU repeal bill. In this select committee vote, MPs overwhelmingly voted for Remain backing Hilary Benn to chair to committee as opposed to Leave supporter Kate Hoey. Were the government to lose this vote, it would effectively be a tacit vote of no-confidence in the government. This would allow Theresa May to call and early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It is only then that we will see just how much the political landscape has been altered as a result of the EU Referendum. One thing’s for sure, as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Witney, Liz Leffman, said last night: “The Liberal Democrats are definitely back in business”.