Leader comment: Talk of sea change in public opinion is fanciful

Willie Rennie met with Guy Verhofstadt as the Lib Dems celebrated victory in the Richmond Park by-election
Willie Rennie met with Guy Verhofstadt as the Lib Dems celebrated victory in the Richmond Park by-election
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What do Tim Farron and Guy Verhofstadt have in common? Well, both are men, politicians and Liberal, and yesterday they both managed to annoy Conservatives in Britain.

Mr Farron was cock-a-hoop after his party’s victory in the Richmond Park by-election in London where his candidate Sarah Olney overturned Zac Goldsmith’s 23,015 majority to finish 1,872 votes ahead.

Mr Goldsmith had won the seat as a Conservative but resigned, in a rare show of principle from any politician, after the government backed a third Heathrow runway and stood as an independent.

He had hoped that unhappiness about more jets flying overhead would result in his re-election, but that issue was not uppermost in the voters minds. They apparently turned it in to a vote about Brexit, even if none of that anti-Brexit feeling made it to the Labour party candidate, poor Christian Wolmar losing his £500 deposit as he trailed in a distant third, with the other five candidates also losing their deposits.

Overturning such a large majority led to the Lib Dem leader making some substantial claims. He claimed that the result meant his party was “back in the big time”. He said the outcome was a damning verdict on Theresa May’s hard Brexit stance.

But he went even further and said that the result showed that the sweeping demand for substantial change which had previously manifested itself in Britain’s vote to leave the EU and in America’s vote to have Donald Trump as president could be countered by moderates. Really? Is this a sign of a reversal of both the Lib Dems fortunes and the mood of the people?

Firstly the seat had previously been a Lib Dem seat. Secondly more than 70 per cent of Richmond Park voters backed Remain in the referendum, a position shared with many other parts of London. Mr Farron says that his own party’s polling showed that a third of Conservative “Leave” voters switched to the Lib Dems on Thursday. Even if that is true, it is not what the polls in the rest of the country are saying according to John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and president of the British Polling Council.

Mr Goldsmith may have picked a potentially populist stance over Heathrow, but he was a Tory who backed a Leave vote in the 23 June referendum. He was unlikely to do well.

And let’s not forget that the Lib Dems poured resources in to this fight. But Mr Farron was not alone among Liberal politicians.

The result was seized on by the European Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator Mr Verhofstadt who congratulated Ms Olney and said Europe “is watching”. But Mr Verhofstadt’s intervention provoked anger from Conservative former leader and prominent Leave campaigner Iain Duncan Smith who warned him to “mind his own bloody business”.

So what else do Mr Farrron and Mr Verhofstadt have in common? Obviously neither of them have ever heard of the saying “One swallow does not a summer make”.