It's happened. Early this morning the Liberal Democrats managed to cause an upset and overturn Zac Goldsmith's 23,000 majority in the Richmond Park by-election. Sarah Olney, the winning Lib Dem candidate, won just under 50pc of the entire vote, with 20,510 votes to Goldsmith's 18,638 -- earning her a majority of 1,872.
Since Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow to stand as an independent, the Lib Dems have piled all their time and resources into winning back the seat, which they held until 2010. As the weeks have gone on, the party have grown increasingly confident about their chances -- releasing internal polling on Wednesday which predicted a narrow win, with one Lib Dem source describing the race as 'tighter than a duck's arse'. Despite this, the result can be classed as a political upset. Figures in the Conservative party were certain -- even last night -- that Goldsmith would manage to keep his seat, thanks to his large majority and popularity with locals. The result was also a disappointment for Labour, with their candidate Christian Wolmar failing to win 5pc of the vote and losing his deposit.
This by-election has been about more than Heathrow. After a disastrous London mayoral campaign, Goldsmith hoped to focus on airport expansion and his decision to fulfil his promise to constituents to stand down if it was given the green light. But the Lib Dems had other ideas and made it about the EU. The Richmond borough voted heavily to remain -- at 69/31 -- and the Lib Dem campaign -- which was also anti-Heathrow -- focused on this. They highlighted Goldsmith's support for Brexit and reached out to Remain voters -- with Olney even promising to vote down Article 50 in the Commons, if elected.
In her acceptance speech, Olney said voters had 'sent a shockwave through this Conservative Brexit government' while Tim Farron made the bold claim that if this were a general election the 'Conservatives would lose dozens of seats to the Liberal Democrats – and their majority with it'. Now this is jumping the gun a bit, and as Fraser notes, a lot of the result can be put down to the Lib Dem's effective ground game where Goldsmith just didn't seem to have one. But it can't be denied that the Lib Dem strategy is working. In the Witney by-election, the party increased its votes share from 7pc to 30pc. They have clearly defined themselves as the party of Remain and in constituencies that voted to stay in the EU this message is resonating. Given the number of constituencies that voted for Leave, this isn't a route to stopping Brexit but it is a viable path for the party to win back several of the seats it lost in 2015. The Lib Dem fightback is officially on.