One of the best-known sayings in politics is ”as goes Richmond Park, so goes Britain.” The constituency has long been a bellwether seat, a place to take the temperature of the nation. Once again, in choosing to sack Zac Goldsmith in the by-election he bravely called to oppose a third runway at Heathrow, they have sent a message. Heathrow was a sideshow. This contest turned into a battle over Brexit and the Lib Dems won. Goldsmith lost a 23,000 majority. The counter-revolution against Brexit starts in Richmond, it seems.
I live in the next door seat and spend a lot of time in Richmond Park. As Gaby Hinsliff put it on Twitter: people in the provincial bubble outside London have no clue – not a clue! – of the pressures of life in Richmond. Perfectly respectable QCs, finance directors and television presenters find it hard to get up the housing ladder. They find themselves trapped in pitifully small Georgian or Victorian terraced houses, with no prospect in sight of getting anything bigger. House prices have more than doubled since the financial crisis. And if you want to be near the ancient park itself, and live in a house with even basic amenities such as a wine cellar, six bedrooms, underfloor heating and a 70ft garden, you will not get any change out of £6m. It is a shocking indictment, of something or other. Probably of QE, central bank cheap money and the asset price bubble blown by the global elite and financiers who live in places such as Richmond Park.
It has all taken a terrible toll on nearby Richmond, with its quaint high street and riverside promenade that combined are a magnet for migration. The place has been deluged with incomers, from Teddington, St Margarets and East Twickenham, scavenging for seafood in Wholefoods, fighting for a chance to buy a flat white from the amazing Italian guy who runs this little place on, like, Richmond Hill, and then you can walk through the park and drink it in, and did you know you can actually see St Paul’s cathedral? It’s a protected view through some trees. Look, there’s the house where Mick Jagger used to live. And so on, and so on.
More refugees from East Sheen come clutching their pathetic bundles – twin toddlers in a giant stroller that loads into the back of a massive 4×4 – fighting on a Sunday over whether Waitrose closes at 4pm or 5pm as they race to replenish their exhausted stocks of yeast for the bread machine.
But now, the people have Richmond have had enough. With one voice they have risen up and declared themselves citizens of the European Union. They are going to put a stop to all this Brexit nonsense.
Actually, I should stop this. The Brexit battle is so bitter that there are bound to be some furious people who do not realise that I am joking. Richmond Park is one of the most privileged and delightful places in the country. Anyone lucky enough to live in the vicinity should thank the fates.
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But it is clear the people of Richmond Park have made a terrible mistake. They did not know what they were doing. They were duped by lies and while I accept the result, a second vote should not be ruled out,
Meanwhile, the by-election result is very bad news, because it will further entrench positions when the need is for moderate remainers and moderate leavers to craft a decent deal. The victory has already encouraged hardline Remainers who think Brexit can be stopped. And the reaction – the Remainer jubilation – will probably harden the hearts of many leavers. When the hardline Remainer strategy is so obviously to pretend to accept the result, overdo the gloom at every opportunity and seek to prevent the UK leaving the EU, or make it such a “soft” Brexit that the UK can be conned back into the EU at some point, what is the point of engagement with opponents? None, which makes an uncompromising withdrawl more likely.
It does send a message to the rest of Britain, and to Brexiteer England in particular. The message is: we know best. Which is unlikley to have wide appeal in the places that delivered Brexit. If the residents of Richmond Park think they are leading the way, they really need to get out more, and go to Sunderland rather than Siena to explain Brexit will be blocked.