LONDON — When a dejected-looking Zac Goldsmith turned up to the count in Richmond last night it was clear that things had not gone to plan.
By the time the final result of the by-election was called, members of Goldsmith’s family were in tears and the former Conservative MP could only look down at the floor as the end of his political career was confirmed to the room.
It was not meant to be like this.
When Goldsmith announced his intention to force a by-election in Richmond Park, he suggested that his “referendum on Heathrow” would be won by “Zimbabwe-esque” proportions.
It did not quite work out that way.
Despite receiving the support of local Conservative members and several leading Tory MPs, Goldsmith’s decision to resign from the Conservative party in protest at the decision to build a new airport runway in his constituency meant he was barred from accessing the crucial local voter data he required.
The Liberal Democrats smelled blood. Despite receiving vocal support from The Evening Standard and several celebrity backers, there were signs that Goldsmith’s personal brand had been badly damaged. His London mayoral election campaign, where he was widely accused of running a racist “dog-whistle” campaign against Sadiq Khan, appeared to have hurt his support among left and liberal-leaning voters.
Labour’s candidate Christian Wolmar reported that Goldsmith’s behaviour during the mayoral election was regularly raised by voters on the doorstep. “People say ‘I don’t like what Zac said in the mayoral campaign,'” Wolmar told Business Insider.
“One person referred to the Mail on Sunday article published the weekend before, where there was a picture of a blown-up bus and a ‘Labour’s terrorist friends’ in the headline, and I think that served him quite badly.”
Analysis of the London mayoral result suggested that Goldsmith had lost the kind of “personal vote” that would normally have been expected from a serving politician in Goldsmith’s position. Unlike Khan, who significantly outperformed the Labour party in his own constituency during the mayoral election, Goldsmith did only about as well as a generic Conservative candidate. This suggested that Goldsmith would fail to benefit from the so-called ‘incumbency bonus’ which normally benefits serving MPs.
Even the environmental movement, which Goldsmith has long supported both politically and financially, drifted away from him. The Green Party’s decision not to field a candidate was controversial among some local party members, but it arguably had a significant effect. In the end, Sarah Olney won by just under 2,000 votes, compared to the 3,500 votes the Greens won in 2015.
The Brexit effect loomed large. The decision by UKIP to back Goldsmith’s campaign was a gift to the Lib Dems, who quickly started referring to him as “the UKIP-backed candidate.” In a constituency where almost 70% of voters backed Remain, this was a toxic combination. Suddenly a campaign, which Goldsmith believed would be a referendum on Heathrow, had become a referendum on Brexit.
This combination of a damaged personal brand, a lack of necessary electoral data, and local dissatisfaction over Brexit, meant that Goldsmith faced an uphill battle to hold onto his seat. Looked at in hindsight, far from being a shock result, Goldsmith’s defeat looks almost inevitable.
This is certainly how some within the Conservative party are now portraying it.
One front bench Conservative MP told Business Insider that “it’s important to not read too much into it” adding that people tend to “vote very differently” when it has “zero consequence for who runs the country.”
One London Conservative councillor blamed the result on Goldsmith himself and his decision to make “a silly promise” to force a by-election. They said that Goldsmith had misjudged the priorities of his constituents.
“Sometimes what you think the most important issue is, may not be what the most important issue is,” they added.
These are not views shared by the Liberal Democrats, who see last night’s result as their biggest chance of recovery since their electoral wipe out last year. Richmond Park may not be typical: there are few constituencies where opposition to Brexit is anywhere near as strong as it is there. However, the scale of swing to the party both in Richmond and the recent Witney by-election, suggest that the wounds caused by their association with the Conservatives, are starting to heal.
One jubilant Lib Dem said the result meant a range of seats lost to the Conservatives last year were now back in play. “We’re looking at Twickenham, Sutton and Cheam and Yeovil for a start,” they said.
There was less jubilation in Labour today, however, after the party recorded their worst by-election result in the capital in over a century. The decision to stand a candidate, transport expert Christian Wolmar, was opposed by some leading Labour figures amid fears that they could end up helping to prop up Goldsmith. In the end, the Lib Dem’s scale of victory was in excess of the desultory 1,500 votes recorded by Labour. Embarrassingly, Labour’s vote tally was actually lower than the total number of local members claimed by the party.
“The Witney by-election was disappointing because it emerged that we had doubled our membership but halved our share of the vote, and now we find in Richmond that there are more Labour Party members than there are Labour voters,” Labour MP Stephen Kinnock said.
The surge in new members that accompanied Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the top of the Labour party has blinded some within the party to the erosion of their support all over the country. Whether it’s the SNP in Scotland, UKIP in the North and East, and now the Lib Dems in London, Corbyn’s Labour is increasingly being squeezed out of the national debate. The old class and political loyalties that once held Labour’s electoral coalition together are increasingly fraying at the seams.
Not for the first time in recent months Labour has been left looking irrelevant. On the biggest question facing British politics for decades the official opposition is increasingly struggling to be noticed by either side of the Brexit divide. This — more than any possible Lib Dem recovery — is the most significant part of last night’s result.
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