The Liberal Democrats pulled off a sensational victory in the Richmond Park and North Kingston by-election last night. They overturned a huge majority to snatch the seat from the incumbent Zac Goldsmith who stood as an independent having resigned from the Conservative Party and triggered the by-election when the Government gave the amber light for a third runway at Heathrow.
Although the new MP Sarah Olney is also against a third runway, I believe the defeat of Zac Goldsmith will send a strong signal to both the Government and Heathrow Airport that the public opposition to it is much less solid than they had expected.
For half a century the wealthy Richmond constituency has been the bedrock of the opposition to Heathrow expansion. Yet it refused to rally round the candidate who had triggered the election on that issue, decided other issues, such as Brexit, were more important. Although it is true that, as an Independent, Zac Goldsmith lacked the resources to match those of the Liberal Democrat Party machine, backed by the Greens, the hard fact remains that, when given the chance, the residents of Richmond didn't prioritise the third runway.
The attitude of the residents contrasts sharply with that of active campaigners against Heathrow expansion. They were queuing up to campaign and canvass for Zac Goldsmith. They felt that, in their darkest hour when Theresa May had announced her Government favoured a third runway, Zac Goldsmith's resignation provided them with a glimmer of light.
The activists' fury with the Greens and the Progressive Alliance who wanted all the other candidates to stand down to give Sarah Olney a clear run against Zac Goldsmith knows no bounds. They feel betrayed. The fact that most of the Greens do not understand the depth of this fury neatly illustrates the very different assumptions organisations brought to this by-election campaign.
The Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the left-leaning and self-styled Progressive Alliance instinctively saw this as the chance to band together to topple Zac Goldsmith because of his support for Brexit and his alleged 'racist' Mayoral campaign. They assumed that UKIP backed Goldsmith because of his views on Brexit. It didn't enter their mind-set that it might also have been because UKIP shared his opposition to Heathrow expansion
The anti-third runway campaigners saw the by-election very differently. They regarded it as a referendum on a third runway, the issue on which it was triggered. They applauded UKIP for standing aside for Zac Goldsmith and would have liked the other parties and particularly the Greens, with their strong record on opposition to Heathrow expansion, to have done the same.
Two tribes went to war with very different mind-sets, preconceptions and objectives. The result of the election certainly says something about Brexit but probably not as much as people are making out. In many ways all it did was demonstrate that a strongly 'Remain' constituency confirmed it was strongly 'Remain'.
But it did say a lot about Heathrow. The residents who the two tribes were trying to influence didn't see Heathrow expansion as the key issue. The Government has many more hurdles yet to climb before it gets a third runway but it is not inconceivable that, if it does succeed, it will look back and see the Richmond result as the day the amber light turned to green. And the ultimate irony is that the green button will have been pushed inadvertently by the Greens and Liberal Democrats, the two parties with the strongest record of opposing Heathrow expansion.