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Richmond Park - Brexit's Bellwether Election

With continuing political machinations on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s not surprising the Richmond by-election hasn’t made too many headlines. But this is no ordinary election. Tomorrow’s result could help shape the debate about the UK’s place in Europe for the next four years. While former Tory MP Zac Goldsmith might want to make this a vote on Heathrow expansion, he is not getting his way: today’s vote is a referendum on Brexit. If the Lib Dems win, it will send a strong message to Westminster: the 48% will not let their voices be dimmed.

Five months after the EU referendum result, something is starting to happen in and around Westminster. The Remain camp is finally starting to get its voice heard and those MPs who reluctantly conceded that Parliament should listen to the voice of the British people in the wake of the result, are already feeling a little more emboldened. Whether it’s through the courts - currently two legal challenges to Brexit are being heard - or in Westminster where around 70 MPs could vote down the triggering of Article 50 without a referendum to approve the terms of the UK’s exit. If we wake up on Friday to a Lib Dem victory in Richmond it will give a little more credence to the notion that our elected politicians can challenge the Government on Brexit without being pilloried as out of touch with the electorate.

Granted, in the referendum vote no less than 72% of Richmond residents voted to stay in the EU - this is a Remain heartland. But if the electorate returns the relatively unknown first-time Lib Dem candidate who only joined her party last year, overturning the might of the Goldsmith machine, then Westminster - and just as importantly the media - will have to sit up and take note.

Tim Farron has enjoyed a relatively quiet start to his Party’s leadership. But, as with most party leaders, success or failure is often determined by how they respond to factors outside of their control. Farron has played a deft hand on Brexit. By demanding a referendum on the result of our renegotiation he is able to stay on the side of the British people at the same time as offering the prospect - albeit slim - that the country could vote down the terms of our exit.

His proposal has already won strong cross-party support and - in the absence of any strong leadership from Jeremy Corbyn - the Lib Dems are offering a credible political home for the 48%. Now imagine the Lib Dems win. The addition of an extra MP doesn’t count for a great deal but it will in one fell swoop change the Brexit narrative. Farron will - for all he’s worth - tell the country on Friday and for as long as people will listen, that this is a ringing endorsement for MPs to re-think Parliament’s approach to how much it consults MPs and the public on the terms of our exit. Let’s not also forget that that much of the mainstream media is desperate to find a new narrative around the UK’s exit. It would offer a legitimate opportunity to shift the spotlight. Combined with the Government’s high court defeat in recent weeks and the prospect of further legal challenges about the UK’s status as an EEA member, is easy to see how this could happen.

What’s more, most MPs are Remainers. Many of them - especially those representing constituencies where the Remain / Brexit vote was relatively evenly split - are looking for exactly this kind of political cover to challenge Brexit, particularly if the terms of our exit are difficult to swallow.

Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney has also been emboldened by support from the ‘More United’ campaign initiative whose members voted to make a significant donation to her campaign. If this new project is able to feed off and grow as a result of a Lib Dem victory in Richmond, it should offer serious encouragement to other pro-Remain candidates in future by-elections this parliament, who should legitimately expect support for their campaigns.

Of course Goldsmith may well hold on to his seat - he does after all have a 23,000 majority - and the odds are still in his favour. But before Zac took the seat, let’s not forget that Susan Kramer and Jenny Tonge held the seat for the Lib Dems: there are thousands of Lib Dem voters in Richmond - the challenge will be getting the vote out today. So, don’t be too surprised at either the prospect of a Lib Dem victory or its impact: reframing the narrative around Brexit.

As published on the Huffington Post:

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