If we want a softer Brexit we must give politicians an incentive to pursue one

29 Aug 2017

On the night of the Richmond Park by-election, I went to sleep expecting to wake up the next day to see that Zac Goldsmith had held the seat. I had been impressed by the momentum Sarah Olney and the LibDems had built up, but, I expected, as was so often the case, that the LibDems would just fall short. I was wrong.


An angry, pro-European electorate, as well as a united progressive force that coalesced behind Olney, had swung the seat in her favour. It was the first by-election of that parliament where a seat changed hands and it came less than two months after a by-election in Witney where strong pro-European sentiment had seen the LibDems leapfrog Labour and UKIP to cut the Conservative majority by 20,000.


It was after these votes that the LibDems overtook UKIP in national polls, and recorded their highest poll number — 14% — for five years. Remainers were still a minority, but they were angry, engaged, organised and ruthlessly pragmatic, and willing to abandon past party allegiances to stop Brexit.


Politicians were perfectly aware that the leafy suburbs of Richmond weren’t representative of everywhere in the UK, but they also knew that there were scores of similar seats across the country. Just over a year ago the LibDems had seemed fatally wounded by their coalition years, yet now they were going from strength to strength. For Labour and Conservative politicians there was a very real electoral risk to pursuing a hard Brexit.


Fast forward six months and Theresa May has lost her majority, but the opposition proposes a similarly destructive exit from the EU. Despite the fact that the key issue for voters was Brexit and, the evidence suggests that if the same people who voted in this election voted in the Referendum we would’ve stayed in the EU, Remainers have little representation. The LibDems did not just lose momentum, they managed to lose voters. They did have a net gain of four seats — including the seats of Vince Cable and Jo Swinson — but the majority of their incumbent MPs lost their seats. Nick Clegg is out and, Sarah Olney, who was a source of much hope months earlier, is now jobless. 


Swept up in a wave of momentum for Corbyn and, wanting to deny Theresa May of her majority, Remainers flocked to Labour on a false assumption that they were the party of soft Brexit — an assumption that would come crashing down a week later as Corbyn sacked Shadow Cabinet members for supporting single market membership. Within the LibDems, Jo Swinson dashed the hopes of party members by declaring she would not run for the leadership. Instead, Cable ran unopposed, once again depriving the LibDems of a much needed post-election post-mortem.


No wonder then that politicians have become complacent when it comes to keeping their Remain voters. Labour and the Conservatives have now turned their attention to the North, Britain’s Brexit capital, each trying to outdo the other in terms of who can propose the hardest Brexit. If Remainers want this to change they must become an electoral force to be reckoned with.


If a new centrist, anti-Brexit party is created they must turn into one that offers a serious threat to the main parties, rather than just being a spoiler. If no new party is created we must lobby our MPs to oppose hard Brexit and learn to vote tactically, just as many Labour voters did in Richmond last year. If MPs feel like Remainers have the momentum and realise that they can’t take their voters for granted, they may start supporting a softer Brexit or even a vote on the final deal. 

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