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Richmond Park may mark start of anti-Brexit fightback

by Hugo Dixon | 02.12.2016

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.

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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

Hugo Dixon is co-founder of CommonGround as well as editor-in-chief of InFacts. You can sign up as a supporter here.

5 Responses to “Richmond Park may mark start of anti-Brexit fightback”

  • Goldsmith will not be missed by many. He ran a very unpleasant racist campaign for London Mayor, which in its own nasty way helped to fuel racist bigotry.

  • Maybe, just maybe the Tory Europhobes will finally succeed in splitting their party; and maybe, just maybe, David Cameron will be the last Prime Minister of a Conservative Party as we know it to have won a General Election. And it won’t be his fault.

  • Once article 50 is triggered and we’ve managed to negotiate a disastrous deal is there still a mechanism for just changing our minds and uninvoking article 50? Aren’t we basically on a path that inexorably leads to us leaving?

  • It is not at all clear that invoking Article 50 is reversible. If we reject whatever deal emerges from two years of talks with the EU, then I think we are likely to get no deal at all, and would have to re-apply for membership without all the special opt-outs negotiated by Thatcher, Cameron, et al. It seems practically inconceivable that a UK government would get a mandate for that. I would lay a lot of the blame for the present situation on all the enthusiasts for the European project, both in Brussels and in Westminster, who failed to carry people with them in the development of the EEC into the EU. What much of the UK wants is more or less membership of the old EEC, but that is not on offer, and some hard-Brexiteers will fight tooth and nail even against continued membership of the EEA.

  • It will be too late in two years’ time! There is no going back from triggering Article 50 (probably – unless the European Court rules otherwise) as it would take a unanimous decision by the other 27 to allow Britain to remain and there is no chance of that happening.