St. Louis, Missouri, 1879. A chemist called Joseph Lawrence invents a new surgical antiseptic that he doesn’t quite know how to market. It is subsequently tried in various places (a few of them anatomical) with various degrees of success. It is used to scrub floors, bathe wounds, sterilize operating theatres, and even sold as a cure for gonorrhea. This antiseptic is liberally applied hither and (more painfully) thither but it is only in the 1920s that it finds a completely different use and widespread popularity. If only Joseph Lawrence had know that his miraculous liquid could be used a mouthwash he might not have named it ‘Listerine’.

The lesson of Listerine is that not everything finds its place in the world at the first, second, or even third attempt. That’s certainly true of the Liberal Democrats who have spent decades finding their unique selling point in a two party system, only to see their fortunes wane after the Lib Dem tonic was shown not to cure the Tories of what ailed them.

Re-launched with a promise to rid us of the Brexit headache, the Liberal Democrats might now have found their rightful place in British politics. Sitting squarely in the centre ground, they offer the only mainstream opposition to Brexit, with Professor Richard Dawkins going so far in a letter to The Guardian yesterday to suggest the Lib Dems change their name to ‘The European Party’. ‘I’m sure I’m not the only former supporter of the Liberal Democrats who would gladly make a generous donation to help the newly named European Party on its way,’ he wrote.

Such optimism makes sense if you believe that the Liberal Democrat victory in Richmond Park marked a significant shift in political fortunes. The problem is that few commentators do. No sooner does poor Tim Farron win his first by-election than he discovers that it was the wrong sort of by-election to win. It was the wrong sort of voter responding to the wrong sort of issues.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t and they weren’t. Richmond Park was merely an event that didn’t fit the prevailing narrative.

The problem with narratives is that they often have an irrational pull. The pull of the Referendum narrative has the media rejecting any analysis that sounds too similar to that previously voiced inside their echo chamber. The Referendum taught them to listen more carefully to the political underclass and to disregard establishment voices. It’s why they are now going out of the way to rob Farron and the Lib Dems of their victory. Richmond Park doesn’t count because to read anything into it would be to fall back into the ‘bad thinking’ of pre-Referendum days. Ignore a pro-European constituency that naturally inclines towards the Liberal Democrats, they say: the answers lie in the North. Urban, metropolitan London doesn’t count.

It’s a strong argument but founded on a misguided narrative about the North. Trying so hard to remedy the fact that they didn’t listen, the media might not be listening particularly well. It’s beginning to resemble one of those old comedy sketches where an authority figure shouts ‘stop talking and everybody listen! We’re going to listen and listen we will! Listen, people! Listen!’ And, of course, nobody ever gets chance to listen.

So, let me offer an alternative reading of Richmond Park base on what I’ve heard. I don’t claim to speak for Brexit Britain but I do live in one of those places that are always painted blue on the Brexit map. My point here is to simply say that nothing is as absolute as some would want us to believe. Blue was never truly blue as yellow was never totally yellow. Let’s forget about ideology and politics. Instead, let’s talk about people and, specifically, the people I know and meet here in the North.

Before the referendum, the local mood led me predict that the country would marginally vote to leave the EU. I’d even offered numbers of 48% and 52%, which were 0.1% away from the actual figure, though getting the numbers almost right was, I admit, down to sheer luck. My estimate was based on speaking with friends, neighbours, and family members who had never voted in their lives but were now committed to Brexit. I understood some of their grievance. It sometimes feels like I’ve spent most of my adult life writing about censorship, the bad instincts of liberal mobs, and the media’s habit of stifling debate, specifically around the subject of immigration. Wherever you live in the UK, the past two decades have seen a noticeable change in demographics and those changes have always been noticed and discussed inside communities. It’s just in the political mainstream that those discussions were deemed unacceptable. It left many ordinary citizens hostile to politicians and explained why they went on to identify with demagogues speaking from the fringes of the acceptable. That was the reality that the media were too slow to recognise.

Since the referendum, opinions have changed in small but demonstrable ways. Outside my home town, we have a sign that welcomes visitors. It proudly proclaims how we’re twinned with a place in France. There was a time when that fact would have drawn a sneer from a local. ‘What do we have in common with t’French?’ they’d laugh. ‘We can’t even pronounce it!’ Except now that French town’s name has been daubed out in black paint by some vandal and a few attitudes have changed. ‘Blame it on Brexit’ muttered the guy on the bus who’d spotted the vandalism at the same time as me. The tone was disapproving.

‘Blame it on Brexit’ (or versions like it) is becoming a familiar refrain. It is not meant as political commentary but simply a statement of reality. On a train into Liverpool the other day, I heard a woman boasting about her next holiday to America, ending with a complaint about the exchange rate. ‘That’s Brexit’ said her friend. You hear similar in supermarkets, in NHS waiting rooms, and out in the street. That’s not to say that there’s been a total shift in the national argument and the problems of immigration remain present and the complaints real. Yet to argue that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is to miss the point that opinions do change and that is as true in the North as it is in Richmond Park.

It’s why Professor John Curtice presented, perhaps, the best analysis of Richmond Park I’ve heard. On This Week’s By-Election Special he said:

“This is what I would worry about if I were Dianne Abbott: the possibility that some of the two thirds of Labour voters who voted for Remain, many of whom are clearly not that happy about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, might begin to say ‘Ah ha! Perhaps there is finally an alternative in the Liberal Democrats’ and they will finally begin to forgive the Liberal Democrats for what obviously many of the Labour supporters believe was the sin of going into coalition with the Conservative Party.”

And, naturally, it fell to the aforementioned Diane Abbott to display the razor-sharp political acumen that we all come to expect from our shadow Home Secretary.

“It’s not going to happen. […] I can’t see Labour voters in the Midlands, in the Welsh valleys, in the North of England, saying: ‘Oh, guess what. We’re going to vote Lib Dem’ because they’re so passionate about Remain’.”

Really, Diane? Because, not only do I believe this will happen, I know for a fact that it is already happening. Just as attitudes can harden, they can also soften. The only question is whether these shifts are enough to affect the outcome of the next election. We also need to remember that the referendum involved an unusually motivated electorate. The turnout was about 6% bigger than the previous general election. Much of that could be accounted for by people motivated to vote for a first or rare time. Those traditional non-voters might not turn out next time, in a way similar to Obama’s first victory in 2008, which was easier than his re-election in 2012. Furthermore, not all new Lib Dem voters will come from Labour ranks. The Conservative Party’s grass roots may be largely in favour of Leave but it would be foolish to deal in the level of absolutes that Diane Abbott favours. Some will be tempted by the centrist appeal of the resurgent Liberal Democrats.

Consider, lastly, one of the most significant clues of the past month that was largely dismissed by the media. When Tony Blair returned to the UK to launch his centrist pro-EU policy unit, he was derided and described as an irrelevance. Yet, for all his perceived sins, Blair has always had an acute sense of the public mood. I think he’s right to recognise the yawning chasm at the centre of British politics. Richmond Park might be a false flag but, equally, it might be a fair flag wrongly interpreted as false. This week wasn’t the first time that the Liberal Democrats have looked surprisingly strong. In Witney, back in October, they came second, with a 23.5% increase of their vote share in a safe seat for the Tories. Labour have reasons to fear the Liberal Democrats but, arguably, so do the Tories. There is a craving for representation in a still divided nation but to assume the nation is static is to misunderstand people. The 48% are no longer an irrelevance but slowly emerging as powerful lobby in its own right. Forget what the partisan cynics might say. Tim Farron could well be onto something.