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.

Will Richmond Park ‘Sack Zac’?

Zac Goldsmith.

On 25 October the Government announced that they would be supporting a third runway for Heathrow Airport. Following this announcement, Zac Goldsmith the MP for Richmond Park announced his resignation, triggering a by-election which will come to an conclusion on Thursday. Goldsmith was honouring a promise made during his first election campaign (when he defeated Liberal Democrat incumbent Susan Kramer in 2010) that he would resign his House of Commons seat were the Conservative Government to ever support a third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. Originally it seemed unlikely that Goldsmith would have to act upon this promise given that then Conservative leader David Cameron had said in 2009 that his future Government would not be supporting a third runway. However, when Cameron left his post in July the issue was back on the table, and Theresa May’s government approved the proposal for a new runway and terminal in October. 

Goldsmith is standing again but this time as an Independent, and hoped to make the by-election solely about his opposition to the expansion of Heathrow — a stance supported by most of the constituency’s residents. His expectation was that he would be able to make a point about the expansion, and then get easily elected to Parliament once again without compromising his principles. Goldsmith has said that he would remain an independent for a “full term in Parliament”, but beyond that he has not ruled out rejoining the Conservatives. 

However, in actual fact, the by-election has not been quite so simple for Goldsmith. Once the candidates were announced, it became apparent that all of the main candidates were against the expansion of Heathrow. In addition to Goldsmith himself, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney is against expansion, as is the candidate for the Labour Party, Christian Wolmar. In addition, the Conservative Party ultimately declined to field a candidate against Goldsmith which has made his stance of standing against Government policy lose quite a lot of steam. With Goldsmith’s main rivals all agreeing with him on the issue of Heathrow, commentators (and voters) naturally looked for the issues which divided the candidates, with the most prominent of these being Brexit. 

Goldsmith has long been an outspoken supporter of leaving the European Union, following on from the father James Goldsmith who founded and financed the Referendum Party in 1994. His opponents on the other hand were staunchly in favour of a Remain vote in June’s EU Referendum. As well as his opponents, his constitutents were also strongly in favour of remaining the the EU. London as a whole voted by 60–40 to remain in the EU, in Richmond Park the vote for remain was 69.3%. There is evidence that many of the voters in Richmond Park were concerned and angry about the Brexit stance of their otherwise popular local MP, and recent polling has reflected this. In late October, BMG research released polling where 25 percent of respondents identified Brexit as the most important issue in the upcoming by-election, compared t0 just 21 percent who identified Heathrow expansion as the most important issue. This suggests that Goldsmith has been outflanked somewhat, and the by-election has turned into a referendum on his stance on Brexit, as opposed to a ratification of his views on Heathrow. 

As the holders of the Richmond Park parliamentary seat until 2010, it is reasonable to suggest the Liberal Democrat to be the closest challengers for this seat. Although, the Lib Dems were reduced to just eight House of Commons seat at the 2015 General Election, there have been recent signs of a resurgence in support with the Lib Dems attempting to court the votes of those who voted to remain in the EU by promising a second referendum, and pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in Parliament. Nationwide I am not convinced that this is a good strategy for winning House of Commons seats, however in an area with such a high vote for Remain like Richmond Park there is a fairly decent chance that it will help the Lib Dems gain support. Similarly, in the by-election earlier this year for David Cameron’s old seat in Witney (another constituency which voted heavily in favour of remain) the Lib Dems experienced a surge in support (into second place), in part because the Conservative Party fielded a candidate who had campaigned in favour of a Leave vote. The Lib Dems are hoping that a similar strategy will help them here. 

In their attempts to pigeonhole Goldsmith as a supporter of a ‘hard Brexit’ and defeat him this way, the Lib Dems have been inadvertently helped by UKIP. On 27 October, UKIP announced that they wouldn’t be fielding candidate in the by-election and instead chose to endorse Goldsmith — praising him for the stance on Brexit, among other things. As well reminding voters of Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, this perhaps also served to remind them of the divisive campaign that he waged against Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral Election in May. The Lib Dems have used this endorsement to their advantage by printing imitation newspapers with Nigel Farage on the front page, and suggesting that he has personally endorsed Goldsmith. In an area where Farage is clearly not going to be the most popular guy around, this kind of thing will almost certainly have an affect. Clearly Goldsmith has recognised that his stance on Brexit is having an adverse affect on his campaign as he used a recent interview with The Independent to register his opposition to Theresa May challenging the Article 50 vote decision in the Supreme Court, and to make it clear that he supported a House of Commons vote on the triggering of Article 50. 

Early signs suggest that making the campaign about Brexit has had an extremely negative affect on Goldsmith’s attempts to retain his seat, although having said this it seems that with just under a week to go he still has just enough support to be confident of retaining the seat on Thursday. Polling leaked from the Liberal Democrat campaign suggests 46.7 percent, less than the 58.2 percent he won in the 2015 General Election. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat support has jumped to 43.3 percent, well up from the 19.3 percent they won in 2015 and within touching distance of Goldsmith. 

Ironically, were Goldsmith to win and retain his seat, it is the Conservative Party’s decision not to stand a candidate that will have saved him. Although this decision was perhaps understandable given the expectation that Goldsmith would rejoin the Conservatives at some point, as well as the high likelihood that a Conservative candidate would have split the vote, it still means that Goldsmith’s decision to call a by-election in order to stand against his own party was basically pointless. Equally, however, you could argue that the decision of the Labour Party to stand a candidate will have cost the Liberal Democrats the seat. Leading Labour MPs Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, and Jonathan Reynolds had urged Labour to refrain from fielding a candidate in order to have the best chance of unseating Goldsmith, however the party disagreed and fielded Wolmar, a candidate with no chance of winning but who will likely cost the Lib Dems a fair few votes. 

What seems clear is that this by-election is set to go down to the wire. More so than the Witney by-election earlier in the year, the result in this vote will be of real significance to the ongoing debate over Brexit. Were Goldsmith to retain his seat, Theresa May could use the result as tacit consent amongst those who voted remain for the pursuit of a ‘hard Brexit”, but were Olney to defeat him, then this would serve to increase the growing divides that have been evident within the electorate since the referendum. 

Whoever wins, it is going to be close.