The Lib Dems were never going to win Witney, but their performance yesterday should rattle Theresa May. The Tories’ vote collapsed by a third, from 60% down to 45% and the Lib Dems were the ones to gain, going from a distant fourth with 7% of the vote to a respectable second with 30%. Witney is an affluent and well educated constituency deep in Tory heartlands and campaigning involved both David Cameron and Theresa May. If there’s anywhere that Conservative support shouldn’t be collapsing, its’ Witney.
Of course, it’s a special case of collapse because they’re not in danger of losing votes to Labour, but it should be worrying for Theresa May for two reasons:
1. It shows there is a big anti-brexit sentiment among a subset of people who matter – well educated medium to high earners, whose most natural party fit after the Tories is the Lib Dems.
2. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote was the only reason the Tories won in 2015. The Tories didn’t gain any significant amount of support – they just lost Lib Dem opposition in important seats. A resurgence in Lib Dem support would be bad news for them.
Mrs May will conclude a few things:
1. Brexit is not a safe long or even medium term mandate, especially as brexit support is negatively correlated with things that are positively correlated with attending polling stations in 2020, e.g. income, employment status and education level, and, uh, having a life expectancy of more than 3 and a half years.
2. The UK’s economic strength is quite precarious with high public deficit and private debt levels, low productivity and extraordinarily bad wage growth. On these metrics we rank far worse than the EU average, but we offset them somewhat by attracting a lot of foreign investment in terms of both money and labour.
3. The UK’s negotiating stance isn’t strong. Our negotiating power is a function of how rich we are. Meanwhile, our currency has lost a big chunk of value and will lose more if we go ahead with A50, and our economy is at risk of a sudden contraction if foreign investors (including EU migrants) lose confidence. The EU will have worked this one out too, despite brexiters’ assumptions that the EU negotiating team will be completely oblivious to our weaknesses.
Despite her posturing, the PM will be very hesitant to implement any definite brexit action next year.
The only thing that will re-assure her is a fresh mandate, which I think she will seek with a Spring election. She will of course win this on the strength of Labour’s weakness rather than her brexit policy, which might not work in her favour.