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30 November 2016

Will Brexit come unstuck in Richmond Park?

The Liberal Democrats are confident of springing a surprise in tomorrow's by-election. 

By Stephen Bush

The Liberal Democrats will win the Richmond Park by-election – at least, that’s what they’re saying. The party’s internal figures show the party is on course to grab a narrow win, overturning a Conservative majority of 23,015 just a year ago, making Sarah Olney their ninth MP.

Are they right? On the ground in Richmond, it’s clear that just as it did in Witney, Brexit has the potential to hurt the Conservatives. Richmond is ripe with the voters that the Liberal Democrats believe represent their path back: affluent, educated, part of that small group that might not have voted for Tony Blair and David Cameron, but felt the benefits of both administrations, and, broadly, hasn’t been actively distressed by the result of an electoral contest – other than the European referendum.

For perhaps the first time in a century, the preoccupations of the average Liberal Democrat activist line up with a significant number of voters – the 22 per cent or so of hardcore Remainers – while providing a visible case study in the merits of the restraining influence of coalition.

I wrote at the start of the contest that the election would come down to the question of whether or not enough Labour and Green voters were willing to forgive the sin of coalition. That Caroline Lucas and the bulk of Richmond’s Green party have endorsed Olney shows that the bulk of Green activists have, and the hope is that their voters will go the same way.

But although a broad coalition of Labour MPs – Clive Lewis, Jonathan Reynolds and Lisa Nandy – have said that Labour voters should back the Liberal Democrats, most of that party appears to feel the opposite, and they have fielded a candidate, the transport expert Christian Wolmar. Liberal Democrat strategists are nervous that Labour’s voters in Richmond will stick with Wolmar. A memo sent to Tim Gordon, the party’s chief executive, at the weekend, notes that “there are still too many LD/Lab waverers”.

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But even a close-run thing will make Conservative MPs nervous. Although I can find no evidence, either through looking at election results in the area, or on the doorsteps, that Zac Goldsmith has a personal vote worth any more than any diligent local MP (which as the Liberal Democrats could tell you, is not worth as much as you’d think). Nonetheless, it is widely believed at Westminster that Goldsmith has a substantial local following. MPs – particularly the 2015 intake, who largely sit for formerly Liberal Democrat seats – will be nervous, even if the Liberal Democrats merely walk off with a narrow loss. If it can happen to Goldsmith, an attractive, well-financed media darling, why not to them? The pressure to, at the least, secure a softer landing than the one promised by Theresa May at present, will grow. 

Whatever the result, it will throw Labour’s “Brexit problem” into sharper relief. If the Liberal Democrats don’t win tomorrow, there will be more Labour voters than the margin of victory between Olney and Goldsmith. But if they do win, it will heighten the sense that the European referendum has changed British politics into a culture war between Remain and Leave, with Labour left in the middle of the road.
We know what happens to people in the middle road, of course. They get run down