It has been a bad week for Conservative Eurosceptics, their worst since their EU referendum victory in June. The sight of Zac Goldsmith, a leading Brexiter, losing his 23,000 majority in a by-election to the pro-European Liberal Democrats capped it.
“The result doesn’t change anything,” said a Conservative spokesman, pointing out that Theresa May was still committed to starting Brexit by the end of March 2017, whatever the well-heeled voters of Richmond Park might think.
But by-elections can hold up a mirror to trends in politics and the backlash against a “hard Brexit” on the banks of the Thames in south-west London reflects some serious thinking going on in Mrs May’s government.
This week has seen David Davis, the thoughtful Brexit minister, admitting that Britain might have to carry on paying into the EU budget after it leaves the bloc as an entry fee to the single market.
This was a remarkable, come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives
Mr Davis also said that any restrictions of freedom of movement after Brexit would be designed to avoid any “labour shortages”, a comment which suggests that EU workers will carry on picking British strawberries as well as working in City banks.
Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexit foreign secretary, was reported by EU ambassadors to have said privately that he favoured free movement; Mr Johnson insisted he meant he favoured immigration but that Britain had to be able to control it.
This all suggests that Mrs May’s team is moving towards a “softer” kind of Brexit, not what Lib Dem leader Tim Farron calls the “extreme” clean break favoured by some Tory MPs.
The Richmond Park result hardly shows that the whole of Britain is suffering “buyer’s remorse” about Brexit: after all, this is a wealthy constituency which voted by 70:30 for Remain in June’s referendum.
But it does confirm that the Conservatives could pay a heavy political price if Mrs May mishandles the exit talks, or if Brexit results in a crash landing for the economy. The Lib Dems could be among the beneficiaries.
Although Sarah Olney’s victory takes the Lib Dem representation in the Commons from eight to nine, it does confirm that voters no longer feel the urge to punish the party for its participation in the 2010-15 coalition.
Tory MPs in the south and south-west England report that the Lib Dems are stirring in their constituencies, one of the reasons why so many are reluctant to support an early general election.
“This was a remarkable, come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives,” said Mr Farron.
He said that while Labour currently posed no threat to the Tories, and the Scottish National party can only potentially win one seat from the Conservatives north of the border, his party could win “dozens” and deprive Mrs May of a majority.
That may be bravado — national opinion polls have the Lib Dems in single figures — but pro-EU Tory MPs will point to Richmond Park and urge Mrs May to tread carefully when managing Brexit.
Anna Soubry, a pro-EU former Tory minister, said that the “sensational” result showed that “politicians ignore Remainers at their peril”.
This week, Tony Blair outlined his plans for a centrist policy unit and next week the Supreme Court will rule on whether the government must seek parliamentary approval before beginning Brexit negotiations.
“Since the summer, [Remainers] have been getting their act together,” said Matthew Elliott, one of the founders of Vote Leave. “But I don’t think they’ve understood why they lost and how disconnected they became from the centre-left”.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is for the Labour party, which is yet to devise a line on immigration that reconciles its cosmopolitan supporters in London with traditional working-class voters in the north, the Midlands and Wales.
Mrs May, meanwhile, has a different balancing act. Some of her officials have noted the recent increase in attacks by Tory MPs on European officials such as Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk, sensing an attempt to sour talks before they even begin.
To counter this risk, the prime minister’s officials have said they will give regular briefings to the foreign media based in London to put across a more conciliatory message.
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