The EU referendum result brought no good news for Labour, since its core vote in one of its strongholds, London, takes a different view of Brexit from that in another, the urban North and Midlands. But it offered the Liberal Democrats nothing but upside. If Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour cannot brand itself the party of the 48 per cent, then Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats will, thank you very much. And it’s not as though Labour has much else going for it at the moment anyway.
Yes, Brexit offers the Party’s former coalition partner a chance to speed its long march back towards where Charles Kennedy took them in 2005, when he followed up Paddy Ashdown’s breakthrough of 1997 to nudge his party to its highest post-war seat total. It is the natural party of opposition to Theresa May’s Conservatives, at least at the moment, in London’s prosperous Remain-backing suburbs, and out beyond them in the wider south. Farron’s party did well in the Witney by-election, gaining a 19 per cent swing and slashing the blue majority to just under 6000.
Like Witney, Richmond Park plumped for Remain last June: the latter as part of Richmond-upon-Thames council area, the former as part of West Oxfordshire. It did so more decisively – by 69 per cent to 31 per cent. The Liberal Democrats will doubtless field a local candidate and doubtless, too, seek to make the flesh of local voters creep with tales of Brexit horrors to come. I mean no disrespect to the inhabitants of this beautiful constituency, in which I was lucky enough to grow up, in pointing out that only a sophisticated electorate could be foolish enough to fall for them en masse. Not so long ago, the seat was found to be the best-educated in the country.
We thus present our readers with a paradox. At first glance, the seat looks like a walkover for Zac Goldsmith – who won a whopping majority of over 23,000 votes; who is standing courageously (if wrong-headedly) as an independent, and who will not be opposed by the Conservatives. And had this by-election taken place before the spring, a walkover it doubtless would have been. But there will be a knock-on for Goldsmith for, first, having fought the London Mayoral election and, second, for the controversial way in which he fought it. And then there is the Brexit factor. It is strange but true that the Liberal Democrats, left for dead in 2015, now find themselves almost the front-runners in Richmond.