Phew – I was starting to get worried there’d be no more significant elections (at least here in the UK) till May next year. Luckily Zac Goldsmith has obliged us by resigning his seat in protest at Heathrow expansion, triggering what should be a fascinating contest in Richmond Park and ensuring our ongoing ‘festival of democracy’ continues unabated.
On the face of it, this should be a straightforward contest for Goldsmith: he bagged 58% of the vote and a majority of 23,000 over the Lib Dems in May last year. Surely not so much could have changed in 18 months to create any doubt as to the outcome this time around? If we were talking about any other 18 months that might have been true…
It is firstly worth pointing out that the huge majority won by Goldsmith in 2015 was not typical of historical results in the constituency. From its creation in 1997 until 2010, it was a Lib Dem held marginal seat. Goldsmith scored a relatively narrow win over Susan Kramer in 2010 before surging to a landslide win last year as the Lib Dems collapsed across the country.
However the Lib Dems’ performance in the Witney by-election last week where they added 23% to their share of the vote from 2015, coupled with their similarly strong performance in local by-elections in recent months suggest that this will be no walkover.
Two other factors also suggest further complication for Goldsmith as he seeks to retain his seat.
Firstly, he won few admirers with his Mayoral campaign against Sadiq Khan this year. Many ‘moderate’ voters were turned off by what they viewed as a dogwhistle campaign by the Conservative candidate, linking Khan to ‘extremism’ and criticising his ‘radical’ views. The campaign was widely criticised – by even Goldsmith’s sister – and has tarnished his previously non-partisan image.
Secondly, Goldsmith was widely out of step with voters in Richmond Upon Thames in June’s EU referendum. After backing Leave, Goldsmith watched voters in his borough vote by more than 2 to 1 for Remain. This will not go unmentioned by the ardently Europhile Lib Dems who are sure to campaign on a ‘soft Brexit’ ticket likely to prove popular locally.
At time of writing it remains unclear whether Goldsmith will run as a Conservative candidate in this by-election, or as an independent. The latter would split the Tory vote and enhance the Lib Dems’ prospects even further.
All of this combined should make for one of the most fascinating Westminster by-elections in recent years. Could this be the first big milestone in Tim Farron’s Lib Dem Fightback?
UPDATE: It is now clear that Goldsmith will contest Richmond Park as an independent, however the Conservative party has said that it will not stand a candidate against him due to his record as a “hard-working champion” for the constituency. While this avoids the issue of a split vote, it does mean that Goldsmith is running entirely on the strength of his own personal vote. The question is will this be enough to see him safely returned to Westminster?
“Zac Goldsmith MP at ‘A New Conversation with the Centre-Right about Climate Change‘” by Policy Exchange is licensed under CC BY 2.0.