'The people of Richmond Park and North Kingston have sent a shockwave through this Conservative Brexit government,' said Sarah Olney, the victorious Liberal Democrat candidate in the Richmond Park by-election. She went on to announce that she would interpret the result as a personal mandate to vote against the triggering of article 50 if it comes down to a Commons vote.
The LibDems were perfectly entitled to try to turn the Richmond Park by-election into a protest against Brexit – in spite of Zac Goldsmith’s protests that it was all about Heathrow’s third runway. If you resign your seat and cause a by-election, opposition parties are entitled to fight on whatever issues they like. The LibDems strategy succeeded in winning the seat and putting a much-needed ninth MP in the Commons, and they deserve credit for that.
But if I were a strategist on the lingering Remain campaign I would be rather concerned at how Richmond is being interpreted as a judgement on Brexit – or as some might say a heart-rending cry from a population which voted Leave and now regrets it. The mathematics suggest nothing of the sort. Quite the contrary, they suggest that the number of people who want Britain to stay in the EU is faltering.
If we interpret the result – as the LibDems have encouraged us to do – as a straight vote on Brexit, we should treat Sarah Olney’s vote as a proxy for Remain and Zac Goldsmith’s vote as a proxy for Leave. If you do that it came out as 49.7 per cent in favour of Remain and 45.1 per cent for Leave. Yet in the referendum in June the Richmond Park constituency voted 72.3 per cent to 27.7 per cent in favour of Remain. Yesterday’s by-election, in other words, could be interpreted as a huge swing to Leave.
Obviously, there were other issues involved – Heathrow, even – and I am not sure that a by-election can really be taken as a verdict on public attitudes towards Brexit. Yet it is clear that that is how the LibDems, Labour and other assorted Remain campaigners wanted us to interpret it. Labour was so keen to make us see it this way that the party hardly campaigned at all and saw its vote collapse to a deposit-losing 1,515. Jubilant remain campaigners should look at the figures before they celebrate too hard.