Does the Liberal Democrats’ victory over Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park indicate the start of a genuine realignment of British politics around the Brexit vote? I’m sceptical.
Overturning a 23,000 majority is a remarkable accomplishment, but we ought to remember that the candidate had no access to a campaigning machine or his old association’s canvassing data. Nor could he draw on the broader strengths of a popular Prime Minister.
Had any of that been sufficient to persuade fewer than 1,000 people to switch their votes, or a few more to turn out, we’d be talking about how even one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in the country was prepared to return a pro-Brexit MP and the conversation would be different. As it stands Goldsmith still heavily outperformed Leave.
On such small margins do narratives hang – but not deep political shifts.
Whilst there’s no doubt the Lib Dems now have a USP in affluent suburban and university seats, panicking Tory MPs should remember that they won’t be in Goldsmith’s position. Indeed, a lot of the factors which flipped their yellow seats blue in 2015 will be stronger than ever.
The Conservatives fundamental strength, going into the 2015 election, seems to have been that we were perceived as by far the most serious prospect as a governing party. The prospect of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister, propped up by the Scottish Nationalists, appears anecdotally at least to have been a serious pull factor for Tory candidates.
As far as I can see this remains a serious challenge to any attempt to build a Remainian ‘progressive alliance’. There’s not really such a thing as a single-issue general election, at least not anymore, and the chief problem any such coalition would face would be that it has no appealing alternative government to offer.
Even in their wildest dreams the Lib Dems might end up with up to 30 seats, the Greens may be competitive in one or two more, and the SNP have nowhere to grow. This leaves Labour – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour – as the essential lynchpin of any and every possible non-Conservative Government capable of commanding a majority in the House of Commons.
And that’s assuming that Labour actually runs in the general election on an explicitly Remain platform, which invites all manner of grief in the majority of its current constituencies which voted Leave. Both Paul Nuttall’s UKIP and Theresa May’s more communitarian Tories are better primed to hit Labour’s disaffected working-class base than were their 2015 predecessors.
On top of that, we ought to remember that the ’48 per cent’ that voted Remain does not translate into a bloc of 48 per cent prepared to base their vote on the outcome. Such a group of voters definitely exists, as it would have for UKIP had the referendum gone the other way, but talk of ‘the 48 per cent’ lends it an impression of vastness which is almost certainly misleading.
All of this gives Conservative MPs in Lib Dem-facing constituencies plenty of ammunition for a strong defence. Even if you were inclined to shift your vote over Brexit, the impossibility of another Con-LD pact in present circumstances means the only way voting Lib Dem will make a difference is if it takes Corbyn’s Labour – who may not be as committed to the EU as you think anyway – over the line, with help from the SNP.
A final thought: it’s especially difficult to see any kind of realignment taking place once Brexit has happened, which raises the interesting notion that British politics might be set on two very different long-term courses depending on whether or not we go the polls before or after it occurs.
Henry is the Assistant Editor at Conservative Home. Follow him on Twitter: @HCH_Hill
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty