Upset shakes May’s Brexit stance
Affluent Richmond voted Remain. Source: Flickr
The Liberal Democrats’ defeat of former UK Conservative Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by-election has provided the latest in a year political shocks.
While Goldsmith triggered the vote after the government’s approval of Heathrow’s expansion, victorious Lib Dem Sarah Olney hailed the result as a rejection of “anger and division” in the nation’s politics.
She said it marked a rejection of Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for a so-called hard Brexit.
Goldsmith’s defeat in Richmond Park shows that a majority of over 23,000 will not ensure Brexiteers survive in Remain-voting constituencies.
Heathrow airport’s expansion has been an emotive issue in Richmond, the target of years of campaigning.
When Goldsmith pledged to leave the Conservative Party if it pushed ahead with a third runway, it would have normally ensured the issue would decide the ensuing by-election.
But fear, anxiety and opposition about Brexit brushed aside airport expansion as people’s primary concern.
If Brexit can override Heathrow to be the central issue in Richmond, it has a strong chance of being the key issue anywhere that voted Remain.
Early in the by-election campaign, Olney altered her position on Brexit. Having said she accepted the result and did not want a referendum re-run, she then explained that she would try to block Article 50. It has done her no harm.
A majority of MPs campaigned for Remain but most have said they will vote to trigger the Article 50, launching withdrawal talks.
Richmond suggests that if those MPs have constituencies with a majority of Remain voters, they can expect their backing if they oppose Article 50.
Brexiteers have branded many Remainers “bad losers” or “remoaners”. Goldsmith stood as an independent, shielding the Conservatives from the humiliation of losing one of their safest seats. But May has established her Tories as the party of Brexit, making it the main target of any anti-Brexit votes in the future.
A general election based on Brexit now looks less attractive for May, who was rumoured to be planning a snap election.
May has said there would not be a general election until 2020, but there were rumours that she may dissolve parliament with her lead in the polls and the Labour opposition in disarray.
There are numerous marginal Lib Dem/Tory seats, many won by the Conservatives at last year’s general election and Lib Dem leader Tim Farron now believes he can threaten them.