By-elections are ideal moments for voters to make their feelings known about the issues of the day, so Brexit is practically unavoidable. Few places are more Remain-friendly than Richmond Park, so it’s little surprise that residents took the chance to ditch Brexiteer Zac Goldsmith. The mood is palpably different in Sleaford and North Hykeham, where around 60% voted Leave. The Conservatives comfortably held onto it last night, winning around 13,000 more than Ukip, who came in second. This will reassure Theresa May, given that the contest was triggered by Stephen Phillips over “irreconcilable policy differences” with the Government on issues including the handling of Brexit. Voters had a chance to register their annoyance with how she was managing it, but stuck with her party. However, Ukip’s popularity will only grow if voters feel like she is dragging her feet. The Liberal Democrats wouldn’t have expected to take a seat like this, but they did push Labour – which had come second at 2015 general election – into fourth place. Remain-inclined voters have worked out who to back in these contests
Now the by-elections are out of the way, Mrs May’s attention will turn to the Supreme Court and, ultimately, Europe. The Government’s lawyer urged the 11 justices at the end of a four-day hearing to take account of Wednesday’s Commons vote backing the triggering of Article 50 by the end of March when it rules on whether the Prime Minister has to win Parliament’s backing to invoke it. James Eadie QC told them that the motion was “highly significant…because Parliament has given specific approval… to give that notice”. The Supreme Court will decide if it agrees in the new year.
In the meantime the European Central bank is trying to put the eurozone back on its feet. Mario Draghi’s bond tapering means – as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard puts it – that “the comfort blank is being pulled away – gently- for the first time” since the region crashed into a debt crisis. The European single currency is not out of the woods yet, as David Cameron told an audience in the United States last night that he did wonder “how long it can last” and saw “more trouble ahead”.
As central bankers work on the eurozone, Europe’s politicians are getting to grips with Brexit. “They complain that Theresa May never tells them more about her strategy than she has said in public,” Fraser Nelson writes in today’s paper. “But what more is there to tell?” He summarises her strategy as follows: “No free movement of people, which probably means no more single market. And no to the European Court of Justice and its various diktats. She’ll then try to keep as much tariff-free trade with Europe as she can wrangle from the negotiations”. Mrs May will be pleased then that Germany seems to be coming around, as vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said the EU should “do everything” to keep Britain “as close to Europe as possible”.
But Mrs May will still need to sell her Brexit deal to the public to avoid Ukip being able to spin it as “backsliding”. Her increasingly strained relationship with Boris Johnson won’t help in this, as his allies have condemned her “ridiculous attempt to belittle a member of the Cabinet” after her spokesman publicly slapped him down for his recent remarks about Saudi Arabia. Downing Street will have to be careful, as that they will need him – the most senior Leave campaigner in Government – to bang the drum for her Brexit negotiations later on.