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18 October 2016

If Zac Goldsmith picks a fight in Richmond Park, he’ll lose it

Delaying the decision on Heathrow may have delayed the end of Goldsmith's political career. 

By Stephen Bush

In anticipation of a decision on whether or not to build a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick, I’ve been looking back through old ward-by-ward election results in Richmond Park, Zac Goldsmith’s constituency.

Why? Because Goldsmith has pledged to resign and trigger a by-election if the government opts to build a third runway at Heathrow as opposed to a second runway at Gatwick. Today the Evening Standard revealed that he is planning to stand as an independent anti-Heathrow candidate should, as is widely expected, the decision not go his way.

Of course, that Theresa May has delayed the final vote to winter next year means that in the short term the issue may be moot. A cursory look at the figures shows that she has little to fear from Goldsmith, however.

Goldsmith is counting on a couple of factors to save him – the first is his supposed “personal vote”. As a general rule, it’s wise to be sceptical of the idea that MPs have personal votes, as they mostly don’t. (A good proof of this is Jeremy Corbyn, widely agreed to be an exemplary constituency MP, chair of the Stop the War coalition, but who suffered the exact same Labour-to-Liberal-Democrat swing against him in 2005 as every other Labour MP in a seat of those demographics did.)

As far as Goldsmith in particular is concerned, there is strong evidence that he has no personal vote worth talking about. In the mayoral campaign, he polled just over 1,000 more votes than Boris Johnson did, despite turnout being up from 32 per cent in 2012 to 45 per cent in 2016. In percentage terms, his vote fell by 10 points against Boris’, a bigger fall than the Conservative vote did in general across London.

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If Richmond Park’s voters were motivated by their personal feelings towards Zac Goldsmith, they don’t seem to have been warm ones.

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Now, of course, Goldsmith’s campaign struck a duff note, particularly among well-educated graduates, regardless of their preferred party, and Richmond Park is well-stocked with well-educated graduates. It may be that he did have a personal vote once, but it was simply turned off by his mayoral campaign. However, it feels unlikely to me that having backed Brexit – unlike the majority of his constituents – that the electors of Richmond will have grown fonder of Goldsmith since then.

Based on the numbers, his only hope of retaining the seat would be if the Conservatives elected not to run an official candidate against him, and even then, I wouldn’t bet against the Liberal Democrats entirely.