I don’t know what to make of Zach Goldsmith – man of principal or man of huge arrogant ego? A couple of years ago, I’d have given him the benefit of the doubt and plumped for the former, but, after his mindless London Mayoral campaign, I feel that perhaps Zach Goldsmith is just a poor little rich boy who’s chucked his gold plated rattle out of the cot once too often.
But, in any event, his decision to quit as an MP and demand a by-election on the issue of the third runway at Heathrow immediately prompted a by-election on the issue of Brexit.
The result, just in case you’ve missed it was as follows:
Sarah Olney (Liberal Democrats) – 20,510
Zac Goldsmith (Independent) – 18,638
Christian Wolmar (Labour Party) – 1,515
Others – 899
So, what does it tell us about the state of our politics as 2016 (surely one of the worst years we’ve had in my lifetime for oh so many reasons) draws to its close.
Let’s start with the Tories. Of course they will say that as they didn’t run against Goldsmith (who ran as an independent), the result is meaningless for them, but, that’s not exactly the case, Goldsmith was a Conservative candidate in all but name and, he was also a devout leaver and therein lies the significance – there are many, many people who voted Conservative at the last election who are uneasy about Brexit generally and unhappy about the way in which Theresa May seems to be veering from chaos to ‘hard-Brexit’ and back to chaos. Many of these former Tories found it easy to jump ship and vote Lib-Dem. If this is replicated at the next general election, then some of the seats the Tories took fro the Lib-Dems, particularly in the Outer London areas and University Towns may suddenly look vulnerable. The Tories may be romping in the polls, but things ain’t as simple or as straightforward as they seem and, as the problems with Brexit mount, which they will, they ain’t going to get any simpler.
Which brings me to Labour, for whom things just get more complicated by the day. They will, of course, say that they never expected to win in Richmond and make rumblings about how it shows the possibility of a Tory collapse, but that again, is far too simplistic an approach. Sadly, Richmond shows just how confused and hopelessly unelectable Labour now is – on Europe, they are extremely vulnerable; Corbyn is and always has been lukewarm about the EU and his ambivalence sticks out like an Old Etonian at an SWP meeting, it’s no good Corbyn having deeply held views and beliefs about Cuba or Venezuela or Palestine, if he doesn’t really show the same kind of passion about Europe – because at the next election Labour are going to be squeezed by UKIP coming at them from the ‘working class right’ and the pro-European Lib-Dems coming at them from the ‘liberal left.’ The result could be catastrophic for Labour, they only have to look at what happened to their vote in Scotland.
For the Lib-Dems, it’s now all or nothing – they showed in Richmond that, for the first time since holding the Tory hand in 2010, they actually have a meaning – they are now the Pro-Remain party and will continue to brand themselves thus until the general election: indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if they go into the next election with some kind of promise to hold a second referendum to get us back into the EU. It won’t be pretty or subtle and it won’t help the Lib-Dems in some of their old South West seats which they would dearly like to get back, but it might help them in some of the more middle-class urban seats, University seats and, as I said earlier, outer London.
Of course UKIP didn’t stand in Richmond, they’re not daft they could see what was coming a mile away – but that doesn’t mean that if this seat was in the North, Essex or the poorer areas of the South West, then the swing in favour of hard-Brexit UKIP would be just as profound as it was towards pro-remain Lib-Dems in Richmond.
So, in summary – the nation is divided and the future is confused, hold on to your hats.