2016 has lost none of its capacity for springing political surprises with the Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney overturning a Tory majority of 23,000 to take the Richmond Park by-election last night.
The by-election was triggered by Tory MP Zac Goldsmith’s ill-advised commitment at the last election to resign in the event of the Government backing a new runway at nearby Heathrow. But with all candidates opposed to the airport expansion, the debate focused on the position of a strongly pro-Brexit Zac Goldsmith in a constituency which had overwhelmingly backed Remain.
It is important not to overstate the significance of by-elections. The Tories’ small majority has been cut but this in itself is unlikely to cause particular problems for the Government. The outcome is likely to be psychological, boosting the confidence of the Remainers, particularly in the Conservative party, to argue against the hard form of Brexit favoured by the Tory diehards.
The signs even before the by-election result were that the Government is moving in the direction of a softer exit anyway. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, made two significant clarifications yesterday which revealed a little more of the Government’s intentions. In the Commons, he said that Government would consider continuing to make payments into EU funds in return for access to the single market. This statement, which was later endorsed both by Number 10 and by the Chancellor, is significant because ministers have to date refused to say whether they wanted to remain part of the single market. This shows that the Prime Minister is supporting a tilt in the balance within the Cabinet firmly in the direction of a softer Brexit.
And in a further sign of Cabinet pragmatism, the Brexit Secretary told Welsh business leaders that although Brexit would mean government control of immigration and the ending of free movement, this would not be done “in a way that is contrary to the national and economic interest”. He went on to say that “no one wants to see labour shortages in key sectors”.
Yesterday’s statements are significant because David Davis’s strong pro-Brexit past had led many to assume he would be a hardliner in the Cabinet discussions against the more pragmatic Philip Hammond. But for some time, Number 10 has been privately praising Davis for his pragmatic and collegiate approach compared to the more erratic and unpredictable Liam Fox. The Prime Minister is slowly crystallising the Government’s negotiating position but is doing so slowly and deliberatively in a way which builds consensus in Cabinet. She knows that anything short of a hard break in March 2019 will be seen by the hard core fundamentalists as betrayal but hopes to limit outright opposition to a small hardcore group. Yesterday’s by-election result showing that Remainers still have some electoral clout will not be unhelpful in that process
By Lexington Communications