Brian Monteith: UKIP rather than the Lib Dems may cause the next upset

Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney and her husband Ben pose for photos with supporters after being announced as the winner of the Richmond Park by-election. Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney and her husband Ben pose for photos with supporters after being announced as the winner of the Richmond Park by-election. Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
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Dublin and Richmond Park change nothing, but UKIP’s Paul Nuttall might, writes Brian Monteith

Here we are in December already, for what has been the most memorable year for political events and significant deaths of public figures.

If we look at last week’s UK news for what is going to influence next year’s course of events then we need to separate the hyperbole from the reality.

A Nationalist First Minister of Scotland travels to Dublin and is given a warm reception by nationalist Irish senators.

Will that really amount to a hill of beans? Will it bring a second independence referendum closer – or was it just Nicola Sturgeon using her taxpayers’ free air pass to win an easy headline and gain some succour after some really bad news that put her on the back foot?

READ MORE: Lesley Riddoch: Irish allies may be key to Scotland’s Brexit hopes

A Liberal Democrat wins a by-election in a constituency that was once rock-solid Liberal Democrat and claims it as a reversal of the EU referendum result? Is it the seismic shock that is being claimed?

Will it bring a second EU referendum closer – or is there a deeper or simpler meaning in what played out in Richmond Park?

Or how about a Northerner wins the election for leader of Ukip while Jeremy Corbyn tells anyone who will listen that to beat the far-right Labour must become more left-wing?

Can Ukip recover from imploding over the summer and if it does who has the most to lose, Labour or the Conservatives?

The reception for the First Minister’s trip to Ireland was about as predictable as a half-time pitch visit by Walter Smith at Ibrox or Henrik Larsson at Celtic Park, but it changes nothing.

Meanwhile, the risks of Nicola Sturgeon losing badly a second referendum on Scottish independence have not receded, in fact they have increased.

The poll released by YouGov last week reported that support for independence had fallen below the September 2014 referendum level and that support for a second referendum had also fallen.

Crucially, Sturgeon’s anti-Brexit strategy is haemorrhaging support among people who previously were SNP supporters but voted to Leave the EU – potentially 400,000 people. More personally, her decline in voter approval rating to +11 behind Ruth Davidson’s +25 must have been hard to take.

There are just not enough selfies in the world to prevent the electorate recognising our schools, hospitals, roads, rail and policing are all failing under her party’s watch of nine years.

The result of the Richmond Park by-election was, for all the size of Zac Goldsmith’s majority, of little surprise to those of us who had been following it since it was announced.

Initial polling showed he had started well in front but as the vote drew closer so the issue moved away from having a third runway at Heathrow – which all the main candidates opposed – to restaging the EU referendum. On this ticket Goldsmith was always likely to lose in the 17th most pro-EU constituency out of 650 in the UK.

It was honourable for Goldsmith to keep his promise to resign if Heathrow was chosen for London’s third runway but the lesson of all by-elections is to not call them unnecessarily or the electorate will take the opportunity to punish you.

Goldsmith’s resignation was not going to change the building of the runway, just as the election of his Liberal Democrat opponent, Sarah Olney, will not make any difference to the Brexit negotiations or the possibility of there being a second referendum on EU membership – or even the outcome of those negotiations.

Indeed, if it is taken literally as a measure of voter opposition to Brexit then it demonstrates a 20- point move towards leaving the EU in Richmond Park, with remain support falling from an estimated 73 per cent to only 53 per cent on Thursday.

Using the figures produced by the University of East Anglia for nominal constituency votes in the EU referendum, Sarah Olney and the anti-Brexit Labour candidate, Chris Wolmar (who embarrassingly lost his deposit) attracted between them only 22,025 votes in the by-election, compared to a likely Remain vote of 46,245 in June. While the turnout in the by-election fell by less than a third the Remain support fell by more than half.

That’s hardly a convincing argument that the mood of the public, even in Europhile Richmond Park, is railing against the Brexit vote.

Of course the by-election was not as simple as being about Brexit; Goldsmith had no access to his Conservative canvass return from previous elections which could have helped him win (he lost by less than 2,000 votes) and he had no mutual aid that any official Tory candidate could have expected.

Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats are the ones making the extravagant claims that it shows that the public mood on Brexit has changed, so the evidence that suggests otherwise has to be known.

Meanwhile, the Scouser Paul Nuttall has been elected to replace Nigel Farage, and has promised to take the challenge to Labour in the North.

READ MORE: Paul Nuttall elected as new leader of Ukip

He says he will fight a possible by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when its Labour MP, Andy Burnham, is expected to resign in the new year to contest the Manchester mayoral election.

Ukip has certainly made itself look silly since the referendum by imploding upon itself in recriminations that have seen two of its MEPs leave the party – including Diane James who was elected to replace Nigel Farage and then resigned after 18 days.

Nuttall the Northerner could not be a greater contrast to Farage the City metals trader than if you invented one.

If I was to put any money on an upset to next year because of this week it would be for Ukip to experience a revival in the north at the expense of Labour.

Next week there is another by-election in the constituency of Sleaford, where the sitting Conservative MP resigned after falling out with Theresa May and, naturally, the Tories are standing a candidate against the rebel.

Both are in favour of Brexit, as is the Labour candidate this time. That leaves the field open for the Liberal Democrats to ride their wave of public opposition and steal the seat.

I doubt it, though.

If I deduce anything from last week it is that the public is in no mood for the self-indulgent games our politicians play and just want their governments to get on with governing – be it in Scotland or the United Kingdom.

-Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain