On Friday morning political animals woke up to the unexpected result of the Liberal Democrats winning Richmond Park on a vote swing of over 20%. A by-election had been triggered in the constituency by the resignation of the incumbent Conservative MP, Zac Goldsmith, over the government’s decision to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow.1
Although by-elections are often effectively a two horse race, this one was made more so by the fact that smaller parties decided to back either the Lib Dems (Greens) or the notional independent (UKIP). Labour also seemed to put minimal effort into winning, despite putting up a reasonably well-known candidate in the form of transport pundit Christian Wolmar.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of the whole process though was the decision by the Conservatives not to field a candidate against Goldsmith, who had decided to run as an independent. I can only assume that they did this to avoid splitting the Conservative vote and allowing the Lib Dems to sneak across the line, although clearly that gamble didn’t work.
In terms of party leaders, the result was a welcome boost for Tim Farron, and will help boost the morale of a party which came close to being wiped out at the previous general election. Losing the seat is a minor embarrassment for Theresa May, though as Goldsmith was standing as an independent she was going to lose an MP no matter how the vote turned out. There was nothing in this election for Jeremy Corbyn either way, although a stable share of the vote would have been better than the 70% fall.
As with all by-elections however, we shouldn’t read too much into this result. The Lib Dems poured huge amounts of resources into winning this seat, something which they will not be able to do at a general election where activists will be focussed on campaigning in their local area rather than moving en-masse to defend a seat in the South East. It’s also not uncommon for seats which change hands at a by-election to swing back to their original owners (the same party, if not the same candidate) at the next general election. Low turnout, single issues (in this case Brexit) and a desire to punish the current government can all contribute to a result which is not representative of the longer term views of the electorate.
Technically an MP cannot resign as such, so instead they are appointed to an office which is incompatible with being a member of the House of Commons. This effectively disqualifies them and their seat becomes vacant. However, the office is only held temporarily, so there is no restriction on the former MP from standing in the resulting by-election. ↩