As we wrote yesterday, the Richmond Park by-election was indeed a by-election on Brexit. But that proves little other than that a seat which was pro-Remain last June is also pro-Remain this December. Next week, the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election will take place. And it will duly prove that a seat is pro-Leave this December which was also pro-Leave last June.
But that Brexit was the cause of Zac Goldsmith being pitched out of his seat is intriguing – just as it is startling to see the Liberal Democrats, who collapsed only last year, revive on the back of the referendum result. So what follows is a thought-experiment, but one based on a reality – the motivating power for voters of the EU issue. It will not become real. But it just might be a very rough guide to what could.
To this article’s right is a map of last June’s result. Blue marks Leave and yellow Remain. The areas shown are local authority ones and not Parliamentary constituencies, and the projections that follow are therefore crude. But let’s suppose for a moment that a Party of Leave and a Party of Remain square off at the polls in 2020, and that anything in between gets squeezed out. And let’s also project the Conservatives as the party of the former and the Liberal Democrats the party of the latter.
Were the referendum result to be replicated at that general election, one projection (Buzzfeed’s) is that Leave would win 421 seats and Remain 229. London would turn yellow, save at the fringes. Justine Greening would fall in Putney. So would Greg Hands in Chelsea and Fulham, and Victoria Borwick in Kensington: a seat’s super-safeness would make no difference. Theresa Villiers, Bob Stewart, Bob Neill, Jo Johnson, Chris Philp, David Burrowes – all would be out.
But the electoral damage to the Conservatives would not be confined to the capital. It would spread out to the plusher parts of the Home Counties that opted for Remain in June. Ministers would come tumbling down. Jeremy Hunt would bite the bullet in South West Surrey. Greg Clark would be out on his ear in Tunbridge Wells. Worst of all, the Prime Minister herself would come tumbling down in Maidenhead: her stupendous 2015 majority, like Zac Goldsmith’s this week, would provide no protection.
However, it would be a sensationally enlarged Parliamentary Party that would gather at Westminster to help choose her successor. Bewildered new Tory MPs in Redcar, Wigan, Knowsley, Easington, Stoke-On-Trent North, South Shields, Birmingham Ladywood, North Durham, Barnsley Central, Bolsover (no more Dennis Skinner), Doncaster North (no more Ed Miliband), and, yes, Jarrow would ponder the competing claims of Boris Johnson, who would cling on in Uxbridge, and Philip Hammond, who would hold fast in Runnymede and Weybridge.
Where is Labour? Nowhere, on this model. Now of course the projection is in a literal sense absurd. But I invite ConservativeHome readers to brood over whether or not it might show indisputable trends. The Liberal Democrats have a clearly-defined anti-Brexit position, even if they have not worked out whether their bottom line is a second referendum or single market membership. And the Conservatives are now the main party committed to Brexit, though with a Parliamentary Party in which more MPs declared for Remain than Leave last June.
Labour, in the meantime, faces two ways: pro-Remain in London, where some of its MPs, such as David Lammy and Catherine West, feel free to declare defiance of the referendum result…and Leave-accepting in the Leave-voting midlands and north. If the Tories stick to their Leave guns, this implies them coming under pressure from the Liberal Democrats in the south and parts of London in 2020. However, it also suggests that they could take some seats off Labour in the midlands and north, especially if UKIP swipes Labour votes too.
In short, the Conservatives become a more northern, anti-mass immigration and working class-flavoured party – and perhaps less pro-free market and more socially conservative in consequence. They advance in South Wales; their progress under Ruth Davidson in Scotland is checked. They work closely with the pro-Brexit DUP in Northern Ireland. Some pro-Remain Tory MPs may feel that up with all this they cannot put. There could be a touch of realignment – or more.
Or perhaps this won’t happen. It could just be that the Conservatives end up opting for the softest of soft Brexits. That might open the way for UKIP, or some new fourth force, in the urban north and elsewhere. It might also shore up their position a bit in some plusher parts of the south and in London. Laugh off the projections above if you like: you are doubtless right to do so. But don’t dismiss so readily the electoral map-busting potential of Brexit when Britain goes to the polls in 2020.