So the Richmond Park by-election taradiddle gets played out to its dreary denouement today. Will the comfortable voters of Richmond Park register a vote against Brexit or against the third runway at Heathrow? It is all so negative and dispiriting. And it will only ever amount to a protest vote. Neither the airport expansion nor Brexit (sadly) will be in any way at all affected by the outcome.
My mother is one such comfortable voter in that most comfortable of constituencies. She is also that most valuable of targets: a swing voter. Wily old bird that she is, she has told at least 10 different people who have knocked on her door that she will be voting for their party, whoever that was, while continuing to keep her powder dry, even with her close family. She takes her responsibilities as an elector very seriously, but I think she is genuinely bemused. She may belong to that generation of women who venerate the voting process, knowing how hard it was won (my mother has not missed voting once since she was eligible – save for the Brexit vote, where she chose to abstain, saying she “didn’t know enough and it isn’t my future”) but this is the fourth time that constituents in Richmond have been summoned to the polling stations since May 2015 (general election, London mayoral plebiscite, EU referendum and now this by-election). “How much is this all costing and who pays?” she asked me the other day. I spluttered some nonsense in response to the effect of “what price democracy?” but it made me feel squeamish. When I asked someone in-the-know earlier this week, they said they thought the by-election would come in at about £170,000 all in, which is less that I thought, but I am tempted toward that camp who believe that Zac Goldsmith should foot the bill.
And I also I belong to that school of thinkers that believe that Mrs May should have taken a firmer stance in the first place; no matter what her own personal voting record or previous policy position. She would have easily carried the day. She is still in the honeymoon period and her people continue to yearn for a bit of Thatcherite nanny-whip. She should not have allowed a (cynically calculated) free vote in Cabinet or in the House back in October. And the Tories shouldn’t have given Zac Goldsmith a clear run at this by-election, Mrs May should have risked a defeat in Richmond in order to show a clear signal that she means business. We need that third runway, and we need decisive leadership, now more than ever.
Well, a protest is a protest. I just hope my old mum and her neighbours give Mr Goldsmith, and the whole cynical manoeuvre, a bloody nose today. Driving over to her house last Sunday I counted about two Lib Dem to one Goldsmith (still a Conservative) posters in the manor, so perhaps the good residents of Richmond agree with me. But he has a huge majority and the comfortable folks can hardly be inspired to make much of an effort.