The Liberal Democrats captured Richmond Park, while the Scottish Nationalists failed to do the same with Tony Blair…. 

On the grey, slushy, banks of the Thames, a small measure of the established political order was restored. The Liberal Democrats won a by-election.

Older readers will remember when this sort of thing used to happen every other week. It was as recurrent a part of the indelible pattern of British politics as the Queen’s Speech or Speaker Bercow making an ass of himself. It is true that every time it occurred the Liberal Democrats would claim that the indelible pattern had been rubbed out, but we knew they were only kidding. From Orpington onwards, on a geographic march that took us to Croydon and Eastbourne, Newbury, Brent and Romsey, the appearance of a hitherto obscure local government officer or primary school teacher with a smile as bright as their yellow rosette would tell us that everything was going to plan. They and their smiles would be gone by the next election. The Liberal Democrat advent always turned out like predictions of a bird flu epidemic – solemnly anticipated, but never quite as devastating as it was supposed to be.

Whether the worldwide rout of liberalism stops now, with the election of Sarah Olney, an accountant from Kingston, as the MP for Richmond Park remains, of course, to be seen. Ms Olney, with a proclivity to run away in the middle of radio interviews, and bewilder herself over what she has written on social media, may seem like a fragile receptacle for the hopes of millions of the planet’s progressives, but for the moment she looks like all they have available. Besides, she succeeded where Hillary Clinton failed. It was a laudable achievement,  especially in circumstances where her opponent Zac Goldsmith, for all that he tries very hard, never quite achieves a level of asininity that is Donald Trump’s second nature.

Many people welcomed the downfall of Mr Goldsmith and his ego, and it would be churlish to deny them the pleasure. Loyal to his brother’s sense of self-esteem, a younger member of the clan, Ben, bemoaned the “Brexit tantrum” that had substituted an “inspired MP” with an “utterly dreary” replacement. Earlier Ben had called Ms Olney “unimaginably drab”, leading one to wonder just how many of these formulations he had tucked up his Twitter sleeve (“unbelievably discombobulated?”, “uncannily distrait?”, “ungallantly derided?”). Nor were these intended as absolute insults: in each case he added the rider that his target was these things “even by Liberal Democrat standards”. One senses immediately what young Goldsmith means. The party’s leader, Tim Farron, casts a long shadow. Yet the stereotype should not be pressed too far. The liberal tradition has managed to accommodate Gladstone, Churchill and Lloyd George as well as giving us a salacious legacy of drunks, roués and child molesters.

It may be difficult to see Sarah Olney fitting in to this piquant mix, though in an attempt to give her colour, the Evening Standard has pointed up her love of Gilbert and Sullivan. She has portrayed Iolanthe in an amateur production and so will be aware of that work’s message about the indispensability of the House of Lords. This is perhaps what makes her a Liberal Democrat: having worked loudly and piously to abolish unelected members of Parliament, her party now sees them as a vital and, quite literally, noble antidote to its lack of the elected variety. Gilbert and Sullivan specialised in the portrayal of essentially comic figures cast in roles of authority for which they are ill-suited. The party’s newest MP should therefore get on well with Mr Farron.

The Liberal Democrat revival was delayed a few weeks by its failure quite to materialise upstream along the Thames in Witney, in the by-election caused by the vamooshing of David Cameron. The victor of that contest, a Tory barrister called Courts, made his maiden speech earlier in the week, choosing to do so in a St Andrew’s Day debate sponsored by the Scottish Nationalists. The subject was the perennial one of the evils of Tony Blair. One wishes that Gilbert and Sullivan had still been alive to capture Mr Blair, a task well beyond the International Criminal Court or, on this occasion, Alex Salmond. Mr Salmond did good Bannockburn with the handful of Labour backbenchers still willing to battle for their former leader; but as an exercise in futility it could be taught in business school. “Sofa government had driven us to war”, he said. Better then to prosecute the sofa. If Parliament really wants to get him, it should pass a law making it illegal to be Tony Blair. Not only would this be popular in the country, it would create a charge which even he would be unable to wriggle away from.

Mr Courts of Witney stepped in to this ensemble of Scottish disapproval to speak with impeccable lyricism about his constituency. It is a place where red kites soar over Bladon and the Windrush, Glyme and Evenlode gurgle expensively past the gardens of bankers, barristers and television personalities. Its MP took us on a tour of its towns and villages, alighting, like Edward Thomas in Addlestrop, upon Chipping Norton, yet forbearing, with admirable originality, to mention its set. Forbearing to mention Winston Churchill however, who is buried in Bladon churchyard, apparently a stone’s throw from where Mr Courts himself lives, was beyond him. Churchill once got engaged in a Parliamentary tussle of his own with a Labour backbencher called Albert Stubbs, who was also Mr Courts’ great-grandfather. He listened to his intervention, called Stubbs “ignorant” and went on with his speech. Great orator that he was, Churchill lacked the Goldsmithian flair to add “even by the standards of the Labour Party” as he did.

Do not presume that Mr Courts’ was a lonely shaft of English optimism to penetrate an otherwise cheerless Scottish afternoon. He was more than matched in chirpiness by Gavin Newlands, the SNP member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, whose adjournment debate addressed the unlikely topic of Paisley’s cultural contribution to the world. If the world has yet to recognise this contribution, the Union might at least be about to do so, by possibly making it the UK’s City of Culture in 2021. The irony of a Scottish Nationalist seeking this UK accolade for his constituency, and especially for five years hence, by which time Scotland must surely be aspiring to independence, was not lost on Matthew Hancock, the minister replying to the debate.

It would be wrong though to chide Mr Newlands for this liturgical anachronism. Impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit and Paisley pattern tie, he unveiled an impressively long list of cultural figures born in or associated with the town. This may be readily compared with the somewhat shorter list of cultural figures anyone has heard of outside Renfrewshire, but if the “musical superstar” Paolo Nutini (a fine old Paisley name, one imagines) isn’t on your A-list, it is your loss and not Mr Newlands’. By the time he was down to detailing the weather forecasters Paisley had given to the world, the point was well made. Sarah Olney, when the time comes, will do well to make Richmond Park live as vividly in the chamber as Mr Newlands managed for Paisley or Mr Courts for Witney. That is assuming that, when she rises for her maiden speech, she doesn’t sit down again half way through it and hand over to her press officer.

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