Yesterday featured another shock by-election result. Triggered by Zac Goldsmith quitting the Tories over their pro-Heathrow policy, the sitting MP was defeated by the Lib Dems’ Sarah Olney. Goldsmith only lost out by 1,800 votes but this result came as a surprise, not just to him but to everyone: he won the seat by an astounding 23,000 votes last year.
The obvious question to ask is how. Goldsmith was popular with his Richmond Park constituents, particularly for his anti-Heathrow stance. The constituency is located just 12km from the airport and will be particularly badly affected by the new runway. This was likely what won him the election last year.
However, there are a number of clues which suggest that his constituents lost faith in him. Firstly, Richmond Park voted to remain in the EU in May’s referendum while Goldsmith was a prominent leave campaigner. Many who trusted him on Heathrow were likely put off by a worry that a vote for him would be a vote for a so-called ‘hard Brexit’. Secondly, there’s the fact that even though he left the Tory party, he’s still associated with their pro-Heathrow mantra. All along, the Lib Dems had insisted that Heathrow was not the right option for the UK whereas Goldsmith was an exception in his party’s predominant pro-Heathrow rhetoric. In addition, there was his campaign for Mayor of London last summer. It was, I think most people would agree, a disastrous campaign. He came under fire for suggesting that his rival Sadiq Khan had links to Muslim extremists and was portrayed by the media as, to put it lightly, a bit of a posh snob. Finally though, and probably most significantly, Tory voters didn’t want to endorse Goldsmith, perhaps seeing him as a bit of a traitor. The Lib Dems have always done well in Richmond Park and so had a bank of supporters that they could count on. Goldsmith didn’t have a party’s past record to show off; he was just selling himself.
Unsurprisingly, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron hailed the result as a sign that ‘the Lib Dems are back’. But does this result foreshadow a return to frontline politics for the party? Granted, it was an impressive victory, but it is worth remembering that even now only 9 seats are in the Lib Dems’ hands.
Farron disagreed. He claimed that it was a vote against Brexit and said that it proved that the Lib Dems are the only true anti-Brexit party. At the moment, I think that is a good pitch for them. Let’s say that Theresa May were to call a snap general election. Labour would undoubtedly lose a bunch of seats in centrist areas and the Lib Dems would be ready to exploit. (And it’s worth mentioning that Labour won less than 2,000 votes at Richmond Park – a very, very poor performance.) But the Lib Dems have another weapon up their sleeves. Due to Jeremy Corbyn’s unclear stance on Brexit and single market access, dissatisfied remainers will turn to Farron.
I still can’t see the Lib Dems returning to the days of 50 or 60 seats but they genuinely have an opportunity to exploit the lack of a centre-ground party due to Labour’s charge to the left. And it seems to me that Tim Farron knows exactly how to win over voters…