Was the Richmond Park by-election a verdict on Brexit? Yes. That is the only reasonable way of reading the outcome. Ignore the clever-clever point that the Liberal Democrats got fewer votes and a lower percentage than Remain did in June: the summer’s turnout was never likely to be replicated, and this poll didn’t present voters with a binary choice. There is simply no other plausible way of reading the result.
It cannot be passed off as a verdict on Heathrow expansion, because both the main candidates were opposed to it. It didn’t happen because the Liberal Democrats are popular, because their reputation is still tarnished, among those whose votes they seek to win, by coalition with the effing Tories. Nor did it happen because Zac Goldsmith is unpopular, though his aggressive campaign against Sadiq Khan in last May’s London Mayoral election will have got up the dainty noses of some of its voters (of whom I used to be one, having grown up in lovely East Sheen).
So, yes, the voters of Richmond Park have had another bite at Brexit – but it means nothing much other than that they have. Almost 70 per cent of the local authority area of which the constituency is part voted to stay in the EU: it was the 17th most pro-Remain of such areas in the country. If you hold a vote in the seat on Brexit, you’ll get a Remain verdict. If you hold a vote in Cannock Chase, its pro-Leave equivalent, you’ll get a Leave verdict. And if a by-election is held anywhere, the party defending the seat may not win it – even if it has, as Goldsmith did, a majority of over 23,000. “There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave/to tell us this”.
The result will change nothing, either. It will not delay the date of Brexit (though the Supreme Court’s ruling next week may do so). It will not keep Britain as a single market member. It will not in itself revive the Liberal Democrats, though the result suggests that, as an unambiguously pro-Remain party, they now have a USP that they didn’t have before last summer, and may be in a position to gain some seats if Britain is in choppy economic water come 2020. Above all, it will make no difference whatsoever to whether or not a third runway is built at Heathrow – and wouldn’t have done so if Goldsmith had won.
Would it all have been different had he been an official Conservative candidate, rather than an independent? Possibly. The Liberal Democrats won by less than two thousand votes. Goldsmith was campaigning without the use of the local Association’s database, which won’t have made finding his voters any easier. No army of Tory MPs was bussed in to help him, or dispatched on the District Line (assuming they didn’t end up in Wimbledon or Ealing Broadway by mistake). CCHQ stayed its hand. And not all local Tories put their back into the campaign. ConservativeHome heard earlier this week of discontent in the North Kingston part of the seat.
The hard moral of yesterday’s poll is: don’t hold unnecessary by-elections. It was honorable of Goldsmith to keep his pledge. But it was weird of him to promise a poll in the first place, since its outcome was never capable of stopping the runway. A conventional politician would not have done so. But he was never such a politician – as he was fond of telling anyone who would listen. Now he is gone, with his talent and rashness, and they endure. Today, post-poll analysis will dominate the blogs. By Sunday, we will all have moved on to Italy’s referendum.