It’s the morning after the night before and the Lib Dems have gained another seat in Parliament, upped their proportion of MPs by a staggering 13 per cent, and seen the Government’s theoretical majority reduced to a mere 10 seats.
The Richmond by-election will be billed by the press as one of the most significant by-election results of this Parliament, and rightly so; but it is not the shock result that many are suggesting. They may have turned around a majority of 23,015, but it is a former longstanding Lib Dem seat. Their candidate, Dr Sarah Olney, only won by less than 2,000 votes.
If you followed events on the ground, you will know that Richmond is a unique constituency: very wealthy, very Europhile (70 per cent voted remain), highly educated and rather left. You will also know that the incumbent independent candidate, Zac Goldsmith, sought to fight the election as a mini-referendum on Heathrow expansion having pledged to resign if the Government supported a third runway; a pointless exercise considering all the candidates oppose this. You will further know that Zac’s political credence diminished following what many considered to have been a highly politicised – and in places highly aggressive – campaign against Sadiq Khan for the London Mayoralty.
Ultimately the Lib Dems did what they do best. They fought the ground war on the streets. They turned the by-election into a mini-referendum on Brexit and on the threat to acute services at local hospitals. They mobilised their grassroots, bussed in hundreds to the constituency and leaflet dropped extensively.
The result will change nothing in the short term. Brexit still means Brexit, the Lib Dems are still widely unpopular across the country, the Tories were not defeated as they fielded no candidate, and all the Government has lost is someone they already regarded as a rebellious maverick MP.
While it was honourable for Goldsmith to honour his pledge to force a by-election over Heathrow, one must wonder why he forced this act of political suicide upon himself. It would not have been the first time a politician reneged on a pledge and assuming no General Election until 2020, he would have had time to heal any wounds with his constituents.
Looking ahead, it will remain to be seen if any wider trends emerge from yesterday’s events. In a week’s time we shall be waking up to the result of the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election, which was instigated by the incumbent, Stephen Phillips, resigning due to what he called “irreconcilable policy differences” with the government of Theresa May.
Again, this constituency must be viewed through a different lens. Sleaford is highly Eurosceptic as a constituency and the by-election will not be a mini-referendum on Brexit, the Lib Dems came fourth in 2015 with only 6 per cent of the vote, UKIP is sporting a relatively high-profile candidate in local Councillor Victoria Ayling, and the retiring MP is said to be viewed by many of his constituents as prioritising his work as a QC over his constituents.
If the Tories hold Sleaford – as I fully expect they will, albeit on a reduced majority – what will be interesting is not what happens to the Lib Dems’ position but where votes move from Labour to UKIP.