Labour, not the Tories, should be most worried by the Richmond Park result

By Bagehot

IN A year of grim defeats for internationalists in Britain and abroad, a morsel of relief. The Liberal Democrats pitched yesterday’s by-election in Richmond Park as a chance for voters to voice scepticism about Brexit. The gambit worked: Sarah Olney took the south-west London seat with an increased vote-share of 30.4 points. Zac Goldsmith, the languidly aristocratic Brexiteer who fought a dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty in May, had triggered the vote in October by resigning from the Conservatives in protest at plans to build a third runway at nearby Heathrow Airport. By covering off this issue (the greenish Lib Dems are also opposed) and making the choice about Europe, his opponents pulled the rug from under him.

It is tempting to see this primarily as a blow for the Tories. As I wrote in my column in September, the Lib Dems have been doing strikingly well in those prosperous but relatively liberal parts of the country that voted Conservative at the last election but for Remain in the Brexit referendum. First came a series of triumphs in council by-elections in such places, then a strong showing at the election to replace David Cameron as MP for Witney. Richmond Park, a posh, metropolitan place where 75% of voters were for staying in the EU, could hardly be a better test of the trend. Indeed, the line on our chart plotting the change in the Lib Dem vote share against support for Remain in Tory areas predicted yesterday’s result to within a couple of points of accuracy.

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