IN A 12 months of grim defeats for internationalists in Britain and overseas, a morsel of aid. The Liberal Democrats pitched yesterday’s by-election in Richmond Park as an opportunity for voters to voice scepticism about Brexit. The gambit labored: Sarah Olney took the south-west London seat with an elevated vote-share of 30.4 factors. Zac Goldsmith, the languidly aristocratic Brexiteer who fought a dog-whistle marketing campaign for the London mayoralty in Might, had triggered the vote in October by resigning from the Conservatives in protest at plans to construct a 3rd runway at close by Heathrow Airport. By overlaying off this difficulty (the greenish Lib Dems are additionally opposed) and making the selection about Europe, his opponents pulled the rug from below him.

It’s tempting to see this primarily as a blow for the Tories. As I wrote in my column in September, the Lib Dems have been doing strikingly effectively in these affluent however comparatively liberal elements of the nation that voted Conservative on the final election however for Stay within the Brexit referendum. First got here a sequence of triumphs in council by-elections in such locations, then a powerful displaying on the election to switch David Cameron as MP for Witney. Richmond Park, a complicated, metropolitan place the place 75% of voters have been for staying within the EU, might hardly be a greater take a look at of the development. Certainly, the road on our chart plotting the change within the Lib Dem vote share towards assist for Stay in Tory areas predicted yesterday’s end result to inside a few factors of accuracy.

All of which can give some Conservative MPs the jitters. It was a surge of wins in Lib Dem seats that gave the celebration its majority final 12 months. That vote is delicate: in lots of of those locations voters switched on the final minute, spooked by Tory warnings in regards to the affect Scottish nationalists would have on a Labour authorities. Particularly in people who voted Stay—suppose Bathtub, Cheltenham, Kingston & Surbiton, Twickenham—the Lib Dems look newly threatening.

But nor ought to Conservatives panic. Richmond Park voted unusually strongly for Stay. Standing as an unbiased (even when the Tories didn’t run a candidate towards him) Mr Goldsmith didn’t have a celebration machine behind him. It being a single by-election, the Lib Dems might focus their restricted assets—Richmondites will probably be relieved now to have the ability to go to the retailers with out being buttonholed by Tim Farron on the best way—and deny their opponents the possibility to speak about nationwide management. The subsequent common election will probably be completely different: nevertheless badly Brexit goes in 2020, the inevitable Conservative “vote Farron, get Corbyn” scare marketing campaign will make final 12 months’s “vote Clegg, get Miliband and Salmond” onslaught seem like a picnic.

Which factors to the actual message from Richmond. The outgoing MP could also be a Conservative (till just lately, not less than). However the loser was Labour. The celebration took 3.7% of votes, down from 12.3% final 12 months, and misplaced its deposit. It obtained fewer votes (1,515) than it has members within the seat (it claims over 1,600). That will mirror tactical voting: left-wing voters lending assist to Ms Olney. But it surely additionally speaks to Labour’s lacklustre voice on Europe (however the clever appointment of Sir Keir Starmer as its Brexit spokesman) and common funk.

And it speaks to a wider structural evolution. Three or 4 years in the past, with UKIP on the rise and the Lib Dems in energy with the Tories, the discuss was of the fragmentation of the appropriate of British politics. That interval appears to have handed. The 2015 election noticed the Conservatives eat the Lib Dems’ centrist flank. The Brexit vote and Theresa Might’s nationalist tilt has attracted again some Tory defectors to UKIP (therefore her celebration now routinely exceeds 40% in polls).

In the present day the fragmentation is extra on the left. Significantly below Paul Nuttall, its statist new chief, UKIP is now overwhelmingly an issue for Labour; particularly within the kind of post-industrial areas which have lengthy voted for the celebration however strongly supported Brexit. In Scotland, Labour assist has been wolfed up by the SNP: the most recent ICM ballot places the Conservatives (the Conservatives!) there on double Labour’s vote share, 22% to 11%. And the Lib Dems are clearly loosening Labour’s grip on Stay-voting progressive sorts within the snug elements of the large cities and in college cities (suppose Cambridge, Manchester Withington, Cardiff Central). And that’s with out going into the fragmentation going down inside the celebration itself, amongst its moderates, the Corbynites and the spectrum of shades in between.

Confronted with this fragmentation, an open-minded Labour Social gathering may begin serious about a extra federal strategy to politics; alliances, electoral pacts and semi-detached regional branches collectively enabling the British left-of-centre to construct a coalition that would at some point win energy below first-past-the-post. Cross-party initiatives like Paddy Ashdown’s “Extra United”, which helped rally assist for Ms Olney in Richmond, are sprouting up. However only some in Labour evince an urge for food for such pluralism. Take this typical tweet final evening from a average MP: “Off to mattress, hope to wake to information of Labour victory in #RichmondPark. If not, actually do not care who wins.”

This large conundrum—preventing a number of battles on a number of fronts, defending a metropolitan flank and a nativist one concurrently, resisting an instinctive tribalism—may very well be past the skills even of a charismatic, collegiate and persuasive Labour chief. However touchdown on the desk of Jeremy Corbyn, the total scale of whose electoral toxicity is but to emerge, it might reshape the political panorama over the subsequent a long time: suppose the Lib Dems, Labour and UKIP all on round 15-20%, the SNP dominant in Scotland, and the Tories taking the remainder. All of which, below first-past-the-post, is a recipe for a succession of Conservative landslides. Making predictions in these unstable instances is a dangerous enterprise: a chaotic, disorderly Brexit (a chance Lord Kerr, a prime former diplomat, on Monday put at above 50%) might reshape the panorama in different methods exhausting to think about now. However in the event you suppose the Richmond Park end result was a simple blow to the Tories, suppose once more.