Tim Farron, 46, won the Liberal Democrat leadership contest in July 2015Liberal Democrats, FLIKR

By-elections are notoriously unrepresentative tests of the political climate. Remember in 2014 when UKIP stormed to victory in the Rochester and Clacton by-elections after the defections of Carswell and Reckless, sending the media and political establishment into a frenzy? The predictions were for UKIP to win between ten and twenty seats, with Neil Hamilton famously saying at their party conference that UKIP would win “hundred or so seats”. In the end, the 2015 election brought one MP who won mainly as a result of strong constituent ties. The point is that the fortunes implied by by-elections do not always come true. For the Liberal Democrats, however, this time may be different.

For the Liberal Democrats, the coalition was a pyrrhic victory. They won (partial) control of the political levers, yet lost two thirds of their supporters as a result. What Richmond, Witney and Sleaford suggest is the party might have found a new niche, and one which could result in an increasingly fertile electoral environment.

Tim Farron has skilfully positioned the Liberal Democrats as the sole defenders of the EU. They are the last road block between an out of control car and a cliff. Their promises of a second referendum, with Farron promising to vote against invoking Article 50, are the last remaining hopes of those with a liberal, European view of the world.

2016 was a bad year for Zac Goldsmith who lost the election for London mayor and his parliamentary seat in RichmondPolicy Exchange

This message has started to gain traction. Sarah Olney’s victory over Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by-election whereby the Liberal Democrats gained a 30 per cent swing suggests that pro-EU areas may be ripe for the taking for the Liberal Democrats. Richmond Park, for example, voted 69.3 per cent to remain. Such has the Richmond by-election shaken the political agenda, that the Liberal Democrats are now polling at 14 per cent, their highest since 2011.

The Liberal Democrat's ability to ‘fightback’ only came as a result of failure by the Labour Party to offer strong leadership on Brexit. It seems the Labour party are attempting to appease two very different tribes – the pro-European, metropolitan areas of London, Norwich and Cambridge, while simultaneously purporting to speak for the socially conservative, ex-industrial areas of Doncaster, Hartlepool, and Sunderland. These tribes, nevertheless, want profoundly different societies. In attempting to send a message for both Labour has ended up with one that appeals to neither. This is epitomised by the conflict between the likes of Andy Burnham, who calls for the ‘progressive’ case to end freedom of movement, and those like Diane Abbott in opposition to this. Where is the clearly defined agenda the Opposition should provide? When we consider the clear message given by the Liberal Democrats, it is easy to understand the recent trends in Richmond by-election, where Labour lost its deposit. For many, Labour seems to be inimical to many values they once held.

“As long as the UKIP-esque rhetoric is projected by Theresa May it seems the Liberal Democrats will continue to take advantage”

Labour cannot hold the sole responsibility for the Liberal Democrat revival. The Conservatives are starting to lose a specific type of voter with their increasingly protectionist inward looking agenda. The party of free markets and free enterprise seems to be experimenting with the populism of UKIP.  It risks losing its connection to the ‘international citizens’: metropolitan, liberal and highly educated people who live in Bath, Richmond, Cheltenham, Oxfordshire and West London. As long as the UKIP-esque rhetoric is projected by Theresa May it seems the Liberal Democrats will continue to take advantage as liberal Tory voters become increasingly ostracised from the party which worked so hard to win them over under David Cameron.

What does that mean for Cambridge? Current trends suggest a profound problem for incumbent Daniel Zeichner. The boundary review favours the Liberal Democrats locally and combined with the lack of leadership provided by Labour over the EU – arguably Cambridge’s most salient issue – Zeichner faces an uphill struggle to maintain his seat. On current trends, it is likely that Huppert will win over liberal Cambridge at the next election

Julian Huppert is the former MP for Cambridge and has been reselected as the Liberal Democrat's candidate for the next electionPolicy Exchange

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