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.

With a friend in the White House, will Putin soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace too?

President of Russia, Vladimir Putin

When Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States earlier this month, the media was quite rightly full of stories of how this may affect the relationship between the United States and Russia, given that Trump had made several statements over the course of the campaign which suggested that he was in favour of a very different relationship with Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin than his predecessors had pursued. Trump regularly praised Putin during the campaigning describing him as more of a leader than President Obama, and praising his “very strong control” over Russia. Following the election result, many in the Kremlin were understandably very pleased as Trump had seemingly been their favoured candidate over the course of the election process. Many in the Russian Government will likely feel that the election of Trump will have given them more scope to carry out the type of expansionist policy which they have pursued in the likes of Ukraine, and which has been opposed by Nato up to now. 

President-elect Donald Trump was very pro-Russia throughout the Presidential campaign.

Whilst it seems that Russia now have a friend in the White House in Donald Trump, it seems as though they may well soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace as well following the 2017 French Presidential Election.

The current frontrunners for the French Presidency (and the two candidates expected to progress from the first round into the run-off) are Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Francois Fillon, who is expected to wrap up the Republican nomination this weekend. In the past, both have made very positive statements with regard to Russia, in much the same way which Trump did throughout the US election campaign. 

Le Pen’s longstanding pro-Russia views are well known and have been well documented, but she built on that last week by describing how the trio of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and herself as world leaders “would be good for world peace”; whilst it is also known that the National Front has accepted loans from Russian-backed banks in order to finance their election campaigns. 

Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russia views have been well documented.

However, her likely opponent in the final round of the Presidential Election Francois Fillon has also espoused very pro-Russia views in the recent past, although these have been less publicised than Le Pen’s.

Francois Fillon has also been known to be pro-Russian and has a close relationship with Putin.

Between 2007 and 2012, Fillon served as Prime Minister of France under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy (one of the candidates vanquished by Fillon and Alain Juppe in the first round of the Republican Presidential Primary last weekend). During this time he overlapped with Vladimir Putin who served as Prime Minister of Russia between 2008 and 2012, under the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Following Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency, Fillon was asked if he was at all worried about the possibility of impending close relations between the United States and Russia, he said he was not, saying: “I don’t only not worry about it, I wish for it.” Fillon has argued that all the sanctions levied against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine should be lifted, whilst he has also backed a coalition between Western countries and Russia, along with Bashar al-Assad, to defeat ISIS in Syria. On Tuesday, following Fillon’s unexpectedly strong showing in Sunday’s primary, the Kremlin described Putin as having “rather good relations” with Fillon. 

All this is worrying to many observers. With Le Pen and Fillon the overwhelming favourites to contest the final round of next year’s Presidential Election, it seems almost certain that Francois Hollande’s successor as French President will be sympathetic to Russia, and Russian expansionism. 

This adds to a growing trend across Europe of pro-Russian leaders winning power, or at least winning significant support. 

Viktor Orban, the populist Eurosceptic Prime Minister of Hungary has long favoured close ties with Russia, at least in terms of business; this led to Hungary agreeing a loan from the Kremlin believed to amount to €10.8 billion to finance the expansion of a nuclear power plant which supplies almost half of Hungary’s electricity. Previously the European Commission had sought to challenge the deal as they felt that it increased Hungary’s dependence on Russia, and would plunge Hungary into debt. 

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

Another European leader who has sought to cultivate close relations with Putin is Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who came to power as leader of the Syriza party in January 2015. Tsipras has looked to Russia for help with Greece’s economic travails and has described Russia as “Greece’s most important ally”. 

Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.

There have also been signs that this pro-Russian sentiment is being echoed by others across Europe, in particular among some of the Eurosceptic political leaders who have come to the fore over the past couple of years, and who have recently been emboldened by the political shocks of Brexit and Trump being elected President. 

But, it is the development that France may soon have a President who is sympathetic to Putin along with the signs that the United States has one in Trump which will be most worrying to many other members of the international community. Most significant is the impact these countries have upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is made up of fifteen member States but of these fifteen, five are permanent members: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Any of these permanent members have the power to block or veto a UN resolution. If the US and France were to begin offering support to Russia in the UN, then this would greatly increase Russia’s ability to act as they please in the international arena. 

Of course, although Trump espoused pro-Russian views during the election campaign, we do not know whether he will row back on this in the same way that he has on other issues, for example his pledge to appoint a Special Prosecutor for Hillary Clinton, which he has now confirmed that he won’t be taking any further. Indeed, it has been rumoured that both John Bolton and Mitt Romney are being considered for the role of Secretary of State. Both are known to be anti-Russia, and as such the Kremlin would likely be extremely unhappy if they were to be appointed. However, it does seem that Trump himself is keen for closer relations with Moscow. Similarly from what we can see that is the aim of both Le Pen and Fillon as well.

Trump could row back on his pro-Russia views by appointing Mitt Romney as Secretary of State.

Of course, it will be a while until we know anything for sure about how these recent political developments have changed international affairs in terms of Russia. But, on the face of it, it seems that the real political winner of 2016 politics so far, is Vladimir Putin and Russia.