The Tories say the Richmond Park by-election doesn’t change anything on Europe. But the passion of voters in the south London constituency and the first signs of an emerging anti-Brexit cross-party alliance point to how Theresa May could be defeated nationally. In times to come, Sarah Olney’s victory may be seen as the moment the fightback began.
There is, admittedly, a vast mountain to climb. Richmond Park was the 28th most pro-Remain constituency in June’s referendum, voting 72% to stay in the European Union, according to research by Chris Hanretty from the University of East Anglia. Only 231 of Britain’s 632 constituencies voted Remain, while 401 backed Leave. (Northern Ireland wasn’t included in the analysis).
In order to have any chance of changing government policy, popular opinion will have to change. The anti-Brexit vote will have to rise to nearly 55% nationally from 48% in the referendum before there will be a majority of seats backing Remain. But such a change in opinion is possible. Brexit will be the dominant political issue in the next two years. In Richmond Park, it even trumped Heathrow as a matter of local concern.
As each month passes, the government’s approach to our divorce negotiations seems more and more cack-handed. It is not just threatening to deliver a destructive, hard Brexit; it looks like it is producing a shambolic one. The prime minister says she doesn’t want to publish a plan. But does she even have one? She seems like a rabbit frozen in the headlights of a truck driven crazily by hardliners in her party.
The Richmond Park by-election has put a spring in the step of pro-Europeans. It comes hard on the heels of the government being told by the high court that it cannot trigger article 50, starting formal separation talks, without getting parliament’s approval first.
Despite Olney’s promise to vote against invoking article 50, there’s no chance of blocking the government now. The Liberal Democrats, after all, have just nine MPs and few Labour and Tory MPs are prepared to stick their head above the parapet.
The best chance of stopping Brexit is not in the next few months but in two years’ time, when May returns from her European negotiations with either a bad deal or no deal at all. That’s when more MPs may have the courage to say we must stop the madness and give the people a chance – via a new referendum – to say whether they still want to quit the EU.
Richmond Park is a triumph for the LibDems. But they mustn’t kid themselves that they are up to the task of defeating Brexit on their own.
The by-election victory was also a triumph for cross-party alliances and tactical voting. Bravo to the Greens for standing aside and backing Olney.
Congratulations to the many pro-European Tories who sacked Zac Goldsmith, despite liking him as a person. Hats off, too, to the Labour MPs Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds, who called on their party not to run. Jeremy Corbyn decided to press on regardless. Ordinary Labour voters gave him what he deserved: the party got only 1,515 votes and lost its deposit.
What we saw in Richmond Park was not a fully-fledged anti-Brexit alliance. In future electoral contests, there should be a primary to choose a single pro-European candidate to go into battle whenever a hard Brexiter is standing. But this by-election shows the beginnings of a new type of politics. Come the next general election, we’ll need cross-party alliances and imaginative voting on a grand scale.
This piece is being published simultaneously on the Guardian website