Morning call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from the Sunday papers

1. Cameron tells us Britain is broken -- but not how to fix it (Observer)

After the horror of the Edlington case, says the Observer editorial, we must search our society for explanations. But there is a gap in Conservative social policy between the big "broken Britain" rhetoric and the little ideas.

2. Sending signals is not enough (Independent on Sunday)

John Rentoul points out that back in 1993 Tony Blair used rhetoric similar to Cameron's. But the Conservative leader's flailing semaphore doesn't address the complexities of "our broken society".

3. This social work by computer system is protecting no one (Sunday Times)

Hundreds of thousands of children are growing up in disorder and neglect, says Jenni Russell, and our system is prepared to deal with only a fraction of them. We must provide early intervention, or intensive support.

4. Marriage just wasn't a choice for my mother (Observer)

The Conservative MP David Davis defends Tory reticence on defining a marriage policy, arguing that it is a complex area. He illustrates this with personal experience, saying he favours marriage, but we must not forget those who are divorced, widowed or abandoned.

5. Apple's Tablet: a gizmo to save the world (Sunday Telegraph)

William Langley looks ahead to the launch of Apple's latest device, the iTablet, and thinks it could rescue our society from electronic servitude.

6. We were too slow in Haiti, and need to know why (Independent on Sunday)

Frank Judd says that wiith disasters likely to become more common, we need beefed-up international bodies that reflect the global public's desire to help.

7. After the Massachusetts Massacre (New York Times)

Neither in action nor in message is Barack Obama in front of the anger roiling the country over a dysfunctional economy and corrupt business culture, says Frank Rich. He must exercise take-no-prisoners leadership to stay in the White House.

8. Barack Obama's banking plan could split the west (Sunday Times)

Picking up the same theme, the Times leading article says that governments collectively can prevent banks from playing the system. Divided, they will end up achieving little.

9. Stop playing politics with our rights and freedoms. They're too valuable (Observer)

The Human Rights Act was used as a fig leaf for attacks on our civil liberties, says Henry Porter. What we need now is a great repeal bill which restores all that Labour has taken from us.

10. David Cameron's dream could end up a nightmare (News of the World)

Fraser Nelson discusses the possibility of a hung parliament, warning that the Tory leader could end up at the mercy of party rebels if he is elected without a large majority.


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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.