Shortly after Zac Goldsmith lost to Sarah Olney in Richmond Park last night, the Conservatives released a statement dismissing the result as irrelevant.
“This result doesn’t change anything,” a spokesman said.
“The government remains committed to leaving the European Union and triggering Article 50 by the end of March next year.”
But while the result won’t prevent the UK from exiting the EU, it really could have an impact on the form of Brexit the UK takes. Indeed the fact that the Conservatives even felt the need to release the above statement, suggests they recognise the real danger the result poses.
This is not because Richmond is representative of the UK as a whole. With almost 70% of the constituency voting Remain in June, Richmond Park is very much an atypical seat. If this was a referendum on Brexit, as the Lib Dems claim, then it is hardly surprising that Richmond Park went the way that it did.
However, the result is significant because it confirms a wider trend of the Liberal Democrats recovering in marginal seats where they oppose the Conservatives.
This was seen most clearly in last month’s Witney by-election, where the party gained a 19% swing from the Tories. It has also been seen in a string of local council by-election results in recent months. In seats where it’s a straight battle between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the Lib Dem recovery is real and growing. Last night the Lib Dems won a swing of almost 23% from Goldsmith, with the biggest increase in their share of the vote in a by-election since the 1990s.
With the Tories now defending an even more wafer-thin majority than they had yesterday, this will leave many Conservative MPs in marginal seats feeling deeply nervous about the impact a hard Brexit would have on their futures. It’s sometimes forgotten that 48% of the voting public voted to stay in the EU just five months ago, with those voters disproportionately represented in Conservative and Liberal Democrat marginals. If the government continue on their current course towards hard Brexit, we can expect a repeat of last night’s result in other Lib Dem target seats across the country.
Last night’s result will therefore give Remain-leaning MPs, of which the House of Commons has an overwhelming majority, far greater confidence to publicly speak their mind. With the government likely to be forced to put Article 50 to a vote in the House, this matters.
Goldsmith’s defeat also comes after several weeks in which the reality of the weakness of the UK’s negotiating position has become increasingly apparent. Brexit secretary David Davis’s acknowledgement yesterday that the UK may be forced to pay for access to the single market, was the biggest evidence yet of the chasm between the expectations of Conservative Eurosceptics and the reality of the poor negotiating hand that Britain holds. It’s telling that the EU Parliament’s chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt was this morning exultant about the result.
— Guy Verhofstadt (@GuyVerhofstadt) December 2, 2016
The Richmond Park result won’t prevent Britain from leaving the EU. It may not even create an immediate change in the approach of the government. But after five months in which a consensus has built up that we are heading for the hardest of hard Brexits, last night’s result is the first real crack in the wall.