At last, a 2016 election result that does not make me despair. I am unequivocally overjoyed that the Lib Dems won Richmond Park.
Top of the reasons why this makes me happy comes down to being glad that Zac Goldsmith lost. Not really because of his dreadful mayoral campaign so much as the fact that the whole reason the by-election was taking place at all was an act self-regarding hubris on his part. I agree with Fraser Nelson on this front: if you’re going to resign over an issue, any issue, you should not be allowed to run in the subsequent by-election. Goldsmith deserved to lose right from the start for this reason and this reason alone.
Lessons from Richmond Park? Two big ones stand out for me. One, the importance of a good ground campaign and having the party machine in place and working well. While many Tory activists turned out to pound the pavement for Zac, because of electoral law he was never able to take advantage of all the things he would have been able to had he been the actual Conservative candidate. In this age of social media, we forget how important door knocking and leafletting still is at our peril. Ground campaigns still win elections.
Second lesson is that Brexit will clearly be a genuine electoral issue capable of swinging votes in large numbers for the foreseeable future. Prior to the Richmond Park Lib Dem gain, there was a lot of talk in Westminster about how Brexit was a “Westminster bubble” issue only, and wouldn’t be important for “normal people” now that the referendum had been and gone (the ironic Mobius Strip involved in these conversations mostly lost on everyone involved). This has been definitively demolished by this by-election result. Lib Dems should beware, however: this cuts both ways. If Brexit is something people will vote on, it makes the seats lost to the Tories in the South West potentially even more difficult to win back.
I’ll end with this: the Lib Dems should revel in this victory but also beware of reading too much into it. The national polling figures are still dire for the party, for instance. Perhaps Richmond Park will be a spark that begins to turn that all around, but I wouldn’t assume this will be the case. There is still a long way to go in terms of regaining national relevance. And while the stance the Lib Dems have taken on Brexit will help them in some places, it will kill them dead in others, with the added burden that most of the most pro-Remain constituencies in the country are either safe Labour or SNP seats, at least for now.
But Richmond Park is a real start. As Anna Soubry, the Tory MP for Broxtowe tweeted this morning:
If certain Tories have started calling the Liberal Democrats “sensational”, then there may be something going on here.