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.

Arron Banks attempts to become the UK’s Donald Trump.

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Arron Banks (left) with Nigel Farage. 

At the weekend Nigel Farage and his group of hangers-on travelled to New York to visit President-elect Donald Trump. Among the group was millionaire UKIP and Leave.EU donor Arron Banks. Clearly the visit had some effect upon him because he has since announced his plans to launch a new political party solely dedicated to ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster.

Banks has suggested that he will be funding a new movement which will look to stand candidates against 200 MPs deemed to be the “worst, most corrupt MPs”. His aim is to harness the ‘anti-establishment sentiment’ which he believes is sweeping through world politics, and which has led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

The idea is modelled somewhat upon the candidacy of Martin Bell, a BBC journalist who stood against disgraced Conservative MP Neil Hamilton in the 1997 General Election, ultimately winning his seat of Tatton. Incidentally Hamilton is now, like Banks, a member of UKIP.

Banks has suggested that the targets will be chosen by some form of direct democracy, however he does seem to have some ideas about who he would like to get rid of. He has said that he would rate MPs by undesirability with “Keith Vaz at number one”, whilst a picture released on the Leave.EU twitter page also suggests prominent Remain campaigners Nick Clegg, Anna Soubry, and David Lammy as targets. One would assume that UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, for whom Banks doesn’t conceal his contempt, would also be a target for the new party.

Banks’ new party won’t take party positions in the traditional sense, however he has suggested some causes that they would likely support, including: “forcing through a change of the rules so that MPs can only hold office for two terms, abolition of the House of Lords and pushing for an elected senate, and insisting on a lower age limit of 40 for MPs to stop career politicians.”

Now I get that Banks wants to harness some of the hateful rhetoric that came from the Trump campaign for the Presidency, and bring it into UK politics. However, I have some questions about how he thinks he can achieve this.

Firstly, Banks’ attempt to unseat MPs is modelled somewhat on the one-term independent candidacy of Martin Bell, and its success in unseating Neil Hamilton in 1997. Whilst Bell was successful in unseating Hamilton and won the seat with a majority of 11,077, this was in part because of a plan masterminded by Alastair Campbell where he arranged for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their candidates for Tatton so as not to split the anti-Hamilton vote. Banks wouldn’t have this advantage. In most seats he’d face the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green Party, and UKIP; whilst in some he may also face the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru — therefore splitting the vote even further. Therefore, the likelihood of one of his candidates being successful in gaining election is very, very low.

Secondly, Banks suggests he wants to field, “a great candidate, a military guy, doctor, someone who has done something with their life.” However, the chances of him finding 200 candidates that fit this description, and who are also willing to stand on a platform created by someone like Banks (who was a key part of the racist Leave.EU campaign), seem very slim to me. What’s more, Bank’s suggests an upper age limit of forty for MPs. Therefore, quite how he expects to find 200 candidates with amazing life experience, who are also under forty, and are also willing to stand on a platform created by him, is beyond me. Overall, the likelihood of him finding the personnel to complete this ridiculous pet project seems to be very slim indeed.

Thirdly, this project by Banks is an attempt to ride the populist wave from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. However, Theresa May still insists that the next general election won’t be until 2020, by which time Brexit will be four years in the past and Donald Trump will be struggling to be re-elected. Populism in politics seems to be something which moves extremely quickly, and who knows what its status will be in four years time. My guess is that voters will have long grown tired of the non-solutions offered by populist politicians.

Finally, some of the suggestions which Banks has put forward as issues which his new party might support just don’t seem workable to me. In the previous paragraph I mentioned the proposal of an upper age limit of forty for MPs, but there is also the insistence that each MP should be limited to just two terms in the House of Commons. Although this might sound good when he says it too himself, it just wouldn’t work. With Parliamentary terms being a maximum of five years long, we would never have a Prime Minister with more than ten years experience as an MP — this would not be good for governance in this country. Our last Prime Minister, David Cameron, took office as PM after serving as an MP for nine years. Most of his predecessors had served for much longer: Gordon Brown for twenty-four years, Tony Blair for fourteen years, John Major for twenty-one years, and Margaret Thatcher for twenty years; and the list goes on. I am confident that none of these people could have done the job of Prime Minister after less than two terms as an MP, and I don’t think that the British public would have let them do the job of Prime Minister without this experience. What’s more, I think that it is extremely unlikely that someone could come in with no experience of the workings of Parliament and simply become Prime Minister. For all the talk of Donald Trump’s lack of political experience being a virtue, there have been reports that President Obama is having to spend extra sessions with Trump before the inauguration because his knowledge of government is so lacking. Realistically, to ask someone with no knowledge to do the job of Prime Minister straightaway seems a non-starter to me.

Ultimately, this is pretty typical from Banks, a ridiculous idea attempting to get some publicity and massage his ego — all whilst bringing the likes of Nigel Farage and himself further into the limelight than anyone wants them to be. In an entertaining article from earlier today, Iain Martin describes Banks’ new party as, “The Stupid Party”. That seems like a pretty good name to me.

Theresa May should call an early election, but she won’t.

As soon as Theresa May became the last person standing in the Conservative leadership race and therefore the Prime Minister, the calls for her to call an early election began in earnest from opposition parties. The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and Ukip all suggested that she had no real mandate and should therefore call an election in order to resolve this. However, May held firm and stated that with her as Prime Minister, there would not be an election until 2020. However, given the current circumstances, this would be misguided.

Currently the Conservative Party have a working majority of just seventeen in the House of Commons. However, in opinion polling they are far further ahead than this. In recent polling by YouGov, the Conservative Party held a lead of eleven percent over the Labour Party in terms of voting intention. When you factor in that Ukip are still polling at thirteen percent, and many Labour constituencies voted Leave in the EU Referendum, then the current situation looks perfectly poised for Theresa May to hugely increase her majority if an election was held in the near future.

In addition, polling has shown that the public do not believe that Jeremy Corbyn would be a viable Prime Minister. The recent Traingate fiasco has eroded public support for Corbyn even further, with polling showing that the public doubt Corbyn’s story regarding him being forced to sit on the floor by a margin of almost three-to-one. This incident has greatly damaged Corbyn’s desired image of authenticity. Proving that he likes to ‘spin’ just as much as any other politician, but he just happens to be rubbish at it. With the main opposition party being led by a leader who it can surely be agreed is unelectable, then it makes sense for Theresa May to attempt to increase her majority as soon as possible.

May should also attempt to hold an early election in order to gain a personal mandate to serve as Prime Minister. Technically, given that the UK has a Parliamentary system, there is no obligation upon May to hold a general election in order to gain a personal mandate. There have been five occasions since the Second World War where the Head of Government has changed mid-way through a Parliament. In 1957, Harold Macmillan succeeded Anthony Eden, and was then succeeded by Alec Douglas-Home in 1963. James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1975; John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher in 1990; and Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007. In none of these five cases was a general election held in order for the new Prime Minister to gain a fresh mandate. This is because in the UK we elect a Parliament and then the Government is formed from this Parliament, rather than the Prime Minister being directly elected.

However the increasing personalisation of politics, in part through the increased media coverage which comes with the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, means that although it is not constitutionally necessary to call an election, it may still be deemed necessary in the eyes of the public. In 2007, there were strong calls for Gordon Brown to call an election, with many people stating that he needed to gain a personal mandate. Interestingly, one such person was Theresa May who stated that Brown was, ‘running scared of the people’s verdict’. Ultimately, Brown chose not to call an election and served as an unelected Prime Minister until 2010. Although this was constitutionally allowed, the decision dogged him during the 2010 General Election campaign with continued assertions that he had served as Prime Minister against the will of the British people, having failed to seek their approval through the holding of an election.

Therefore, if May has any sense, she will attempt to call an early election soon in order to secure her personal mandate. This is the sensible option given the state of the opposition parties. The ongoing soap-opera in the Labour Party means that they will surely struggle to run an effective election campaign, and although Jeremy Corbyn is certain to defeat Owen Smith in September, who knows who will be leading the Labour Party come 2020. May should strike now, whilst she knows that she is guaranteed victory and an increased majority.

However, there are several difficulties inherent in the calling of an election at this time that mean May might decide against it.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 means that the Prime Minister can no longer just dissolve Parliament when he or she chooses. The act set the date for the 2015 General Election as 7 May 2015, and then set an election every five years after. There are however, two ways to get around the act.

If two-thirds of the House of Commons vote for an early election to be held, then the Fixed-term Parliaments Act can be bypassed. Now, this may seem easy given that the leadership of most of the opposition parties sitting in the House of Commons have called for an early election. However, those calling for an early election in the Labour Party are those who still hold the misguided view that it is possible for Corbyn to win an election and become Prime Minister. The moderates who don’t support Corbyn will surely be loath to vote for an early general election as they will be worried about losing their seats due to the unpopularity of the party’s leadership. Similarly, although Nigel Farage called for an early general election, he has since resigned as the leader of Ukip. With Ukip poised to elect someone who nobody has ever heard of as leader, they may not be too keen on an early election either. At least until their new leader has settled in. The Green Party are in a similar situation of leadership flux, whilst the Liberal Democrat brand is surely not yet strong enough to fight another election. Seemingly, the only party who would be organised enough to fight an early general election would be the SNP. Therefore, it is difficult to see opposition parties voting in the House of Commons for an early general election to be held. It seems likely that the opposition leaders calling for an early general election after May succeeded David Cameron, were simply trying the give the new government a bit of a bloody nose.

The second way in which the Fixed-term Parliaments Act can be bypassed is through a vote of no-confidence in the government. This requires only a simple majority vote. Following a vote of no-confidence, there would then be a period of fourteen days where new governments MPs could attempt to form new governments and try to command the support of the House of Commons. May’s supporters would have to vote these proposals down in order to secure an early election. The danger of his option is firstly that the Prime Minister appears incompetent as a result of seemingly not being able to command the support of her own party following a vote of no-confidence. This would hardly be good for her electoral prospects. Secondly, in creating the situation for a vote of no-confidence, there would be the danger that Theresa May comes out of the process looking slightly Machiavellian. The public popularity of politicians and the Westminster elite remains very low, and therefore it would be hard to get them to buy into a scheme like this. Witness the unpopularity of Michael Gove after he stabbed Boris Johnson in the back in the race for the Conservative Leadership, as an example of the public’s dislike of Machiavellian politics. Therefore, a scheme like this wouldn’t do much for May’s popularity.

Therefore, there are serious difficulties inherent in the calling of an early general election, that make it somewhat unlikely that we will have an election before 2020. In addition to the constitutional difficulties, May’s original decision to say that she was ruling out an early election was likely to give the economy some sort of certainty following the repercussions which came as a result of the Brexit vote. It seems unlikely that May will want to increase this uncertainty.

Overall, it seems unlikely that an early election will be called. May seems content with the mandate earned by the Conservative Party in the 2015 General Election, whilst the constitutional requirements for calling an early election make it a very difficult task.

However, by not calling an early election, May is throwing away a golden opportunity. An opportunity to increase her Parliamentary majority hugely, and therefore guarantee the passing of her legislative agenda; whilst also potentially gaining a majority large enough to keep the Conservatives in power for many years.

But, although Theresa May should attempt to call an early general election, she probably won’t.