ZAC GOLDSMITH has lost his seat as an MP, conceding his constituency of Richmond Park to the Liberal Democrats. Goldsmith, who sparked a by-election by resigning from the Conservative party over their decision to expand Heathrow Airport, was widely expected to regain his seat, but was beaten by Sarah Olney, who won by less than 2000 votes.
The Lib Dems were quick to amplify the significance of this result in relation to Brexit. The vote, asserted Olney, was a rejection of “the politics of anger and division” they believe the Brexit referendum constitutes. Furthermore, Olney was clear: this vote is a strong message from the British people, who “do not want a hard Brexit”, and “do not want to be pulled out of the single market”.
If any proof was needed that an early general election should not be called, this is it.
The Lib Dems say that this result is a “shockwave”, and must be interpreted as a clear message to the government. They are right, but for the wrong reason. Context is important: in the EU referendum, Richmond Park voted overwhelmingly to Remain, by a majority of 72%. Any notion that this Remain stronghold is indicative of the mood of the British public over Brexit must be taken with a grain of salt.
The Lib Dems are campaigning on a no-Brexit platform, and for a second referendum on membership. Despite saying otherwise, the official party position is that, “when the deal is negotiated, the British people must have a chance to say if they would prefer the new arrangement, or would prefer to remain inside the European Union”. The deal they wish to negotiate includes the continuation of free movement, and membership of the single market.
The logical fallacy being presented by the Lib Dems is quite obvious. They argue that the result of Richmond Park means the government should consider negotiating a so-called “soft Brexit”. As any informed Leave voter can tell you, the Soft Brexit model is a euphemism for remaining in the European Union, as remaining inside the customs union and retaining the EU’s four freedoms is, ultimately, remaining inside the EU itself. This is the choice the Lib Dems are offering: Remain, or Remain.
Leave voters, pay attention now. This result is your wake-up call. If Goldsmith’s defeat teaches us one thing, it is that Tim Farron has successfully reinvented his party as the UKIP of the left; a single-issue partisan movement whose rhetorical power is so great that it will eclipse any other consideration. Goldsmith was popular in Richmond Park; he won the seat by 23’000 votes in 2015, and initiated a by-election for the principle cause of protesting on behalf of his constituents.
This is why a general election should not be called until absolutely necessary – certainly after Brexit – and why we should be wary about the fight we face come 2020 if Brexit has not been delivered. The Richmond Park result has shown that an early or pre-Brexit general election will not be fought on policy, but on the European question. It will be, in effect, a second referendum fought by constituency, in which one side – the Lib Dems – can callously make use of the opportunity to present the 48% with an unfiltered opportunity to overturn the result of the referendum.
Richmond Park proves that this is a winning formula. There is no other way to explain how a popular conservative candidate, campaigning as an independent with no discernible policy shifts, can lose so significant a majority as his to a party whose fundamental ideology is in such stark contrast. The by-election in Witney was another example of this. Another Remain and safe Tory constituency, the Lib Dems positioned themselves as the anti-Brexit option, and cut the Tory majority by 20’000 votes.
Of course, you can already hear the argument being levelled against this being a problem. “If the British public vote in a party that wants to Remain, surely that is a proper mandate to Remain.” This is disingenuous, for obvious reasons. The Lib Dems are fully aware that opinion on how to conduct Brexit is divided, mainly due to confusion and misinformation about what leaving the EU actually constitutes. Labour, the Conservatives, and UKIP – two of whom did not even contest this by-election – will all offer unique visions of Brexit, fighting for, and so diluting, the 52%. Unopposed, and with the support of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems can offer the 48% the prize they were outvoted for – a Remain outcome.
Even if we trust the British people to believe in the spirit of democracy, there is still an obvious and significant demographic that does not. If we take recent polls that suggest 68% of the country believe we must respect the outcome of the referendum, that still leaves a margin of 32% for the Lib Dems to exploit. The Tories won the last election with 36.7% of the vote, without the benefit of constituencies dominated by single-issue bias. As unlikely as it sounds, a strong Lib Dem campaign could derail what is predicted to be a Tory landslide. Stranger things have happened recently.
Since the beginning of this campaign, Leave voters have always had to be on the top of our game. We have to know more facts and figures, lest we be labelled ignorant and stupid, a charge Remain voters noticeably escape. Our rhetoric on difficult topics like immigration must be carefully crafted to avoid accusations of nationalist bigotry. It seems we’re constantly on the receiving end of mainstream media bias, Trump comparisons, and the memes and viral dialogue of social media. It can be disheartening, and insulting. I feel no shame in admitted that I sometimes think it would be easier just to quit with a defeated que sera sera.
Don’t. If you care about your vote, opposing the anti-democratic opportunism of the Lib Dems is of paramount importance. A general election cannot be fought and won against extreme partisanship of this nature without considerable passion and effort, qualities I know we possess and have seen in action during the referendum campaign. Keep informed. Keep engaged. When the time comes, pick a side and actually campaign for it; don’t waste your time arguing on social media, actually get out and talk to people. If we make these efforts, we will get a Brexit that resembles something we actually voted for, for the principles in which we believe. If not, we’re all going to be Zac Goldsmith.