A penny for Zac Goldsmith’s thoughts today! The now former MP for Richmond Park in Southwest London, resigned from his seat and from the Conservative Party to force a by-election in the constituency, to show his opposition to the Government’s plan to expand Heathrow.
In the by-election held yesterday, Goldsmith was beaten by Lib Dem Sarah Olney, who overturned the former MP’s 23000-seat majority to win by nearly 2000 votes.
Neither the Conservative Party nor UKIP stood a candidate in the by-election and Goldsmith still couldn’t win. This was mixed messaging on the part of the Tories in that they were allowing someone who resigned from the party a relatively clear run at the seat, despite the fact the election was triggered in opposition to government policy (although who knows what may have been agreed behind the scenes between Tory party elders and Goldsmith).
Another implication of this Tory miscalculation is that they have seen their majority in parliament reduced to 13 (indirectly strengthening the hand of our local representatives, particularly the DUP). This result also reduces the likelihood of an early general election as Theresa May will be unwilling to go to the country if she feels that there is a strong chance that pro-Remain constituencies vote for a candidate who supports their position on Europe as opposed to Tory Leaver, which is exactly what happened here with both Labour and Tory Remainers giving their vote to Olney.
Labour’s performance in the by-election was poor (share of the vote down by 8.7%), but this must be put in context. Many in the party, including shadow business Secretary Clive Lewis, were calling for the party to stand aside to give the Lib Dems a clear run and as I mentioned earlier, many Labour supporters gave their vote to Olney. Labour’s performance in this seat has always been relatively poor. Even in 1997 they gained only 12% of the vote in the general election that saw Tony Blair swept in to office with a huge landslide.
There’s no doubting Lib Dem tails were up this morning. The party now have an additional MP (now 9 in total), but they will now use this result as a base to rebuild following the nadir of the 2015 general election when they lost 49 MPs. They also have an opportunity to carve out a niche for themselves amongst the three main parties in England in that they unequivocally pro-Europe, unlike Labour and The Tories, both of whom are conflicted on the issue.
2016 has been a horrific year for Zac Goldsmith personally. Having been defeated by Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral elections when his smearing of Khan and dog-whistle tactics were condemned even by Conservatives, he has now lost his seat in Parliament. Few will mourn his political demise.
By-election results can be notoriously difficult to interpret. Low turnout, an opportunity to punish a sitting Government and the chance to fight on a single issue mean that results can be easily misread. On the other hand, this by-election may signal a change in British politics from voters voting along party lines to one where they begin to vote on the basis of Leave vs Remain, or as Tony Blair puts it, Open vs Closed. There is no doubt however that things have certainly become a little more interesting.