Steve Richards: As Labour stumbles on Brexit, the Lib Dems are important again
Labour MPs are all over the place on Brexit, but the Lib Dems have triumphed in Richmond with a clear line on what should happen next.
The outcome of the Richmond by-election confirms that the EU referendum did not resolve the eternal national debate about Europe. The reckless summer plebiscite has started a new and more intense one.
That is the role of referendums in the UK. They are held to settle an issue and only pour petrol on the flames. Look at Scotland. Then look again at Richmond. The constituency might have been more pro Remain than most, but the Liberal Democrats’ victory shows that the Remainers are not letting go of the issue. They are as angry and worried now as they were in the immediate aftermath of the referendum.
The choice the voters had in Richmond was not a straightforward one. Zac Goldsmith was a popular MP. He acted honourably by sticking to his pledge to resign if the government backed Heathrow expansion. Voters in Richmond share his passionate opposition to Heathrow. Under normal circumstances MP and voters would have danced together towards a by-election victory in order to toast the integrity of a local representative who had stuck to his word and to advance their protest against Heathrow.
But these are not normal circumstances. They dumped their Brexit-supporting MP and backed the Liberal Democrats. Brexit topped Heathrow. A previously unknown candidate beat an admired and well known local MP.
One of the great clichés in British politics is that there are limits to what can be read into by-election results. This is obviously true. But we are entering a phase of shapeless turbulence when by-elections will acquire more significance than they have done in recent years.
In the 1980s when the late Vincent Hannah was the Newsnight’s by-election correspondent each battle seemed as important as a US presidential contest. That is partly because he made them so, but the local contests also punctuated a period of unpredictable change and added to the unpredictability. During that decade there was a formal schism on the left and the unruly eruption of Thatcherism. The future of leaders and their parties was at stake in by-elections then and they may well become so again.
The Liberal Democrats were lucky to have a by-election in Richmond. They held the seat not so long ago and this was a dream area to put their pro European case. Even so they made the most of their luck. They are the only national UK Party with a clear line on what should follow the referendum. They insist there should be another one once the negotiation is completed.
The case is much easier for a smaller parliamentary party to make and the Liberal Democrats now have a mere nine MPs rather than eight. Still they have a cause as they had when they opposed the war in Iraq. Brexit is in some respects an even more potent issue for them because it brings together a wider group of the electorate, with pro-EU Conservatives and Labour voters wondering how to reverse the march towards the cliff’s edge.
Many questioned whether the Liberal Democrats would survive after their catastrophic general election performance in 2015. Richmond provides the answer. They are breathing again. For their leader, Tim Farron, this is a very big boost.
As a result of his party’s victory Theresa May has an even smaller majority in the Commons to navigate the path towards Brexit. This should matter but the signs are that it will not do so. Most MPs say they will vote in favour of Article 50 if they get a chance early next year.
Labour MPs are all over the place on Brexit. Some appear to agree with Theresa May that constraints on free movement are a red line. Others insist access to the single market must be the overwhelming objective. Some support free movement of labour. A few favour a second referendum while most do not. They are fearful of UKIP making waves in the north of England and even more terrified of challenging the voters’ verdict in the referendum.
Faced with such puny incoherence May will find the Commons a relatively straightforward forum at least for the time being. At first her nightmares will be in Europe when the negotiations begin and later with her parliamentary party when her talks with the rest of the EU stumble towards an exhausted conclusion.
Throughout the traumatic and foggy sequence Farron and his small number of MPs will have a clear argument to make. After making some near fatal misjudgements in their partnership with the Conservatives the Liberal Democrats have an important role again.
Picture by: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images