The Liberal Democrats have produced a stunning byelection victory to unseat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park, overturning a 23,000 majority to remove the former Conservative MP in a vote that became a de facto plebiscite on the government’s Brexit plans.
Sarah Olney, the winning Lib Dem candidate, took a fraction under 50% of the entire vote to record a majority of 1,872. Large numbers of local Labour voters backed her, with the Labour candidate, Christian Wolmar, losing his deposit.
Olney, a local accountant who only became involved in politics a year ago, took to the stage at the announcement to say that voters had “sent a shockwave through this Conservative Brexit government”.
She added: “And our message is clear: we do not want a hard Brexit. We do not want to pull out of the single market. We will not let intolerance, division and fear win.”
Olney won 20,510 votes, up 30.4% on the party’s 2015 result, against 18,638 for Goldsmith. She is the Lib Dems’ ninth MP in this parliament, and currently the only woman.
Goldsmith, who had held the seat since taking it from the Lib Dems in 2010, had resigned in protest at the government’s decision to to back a third runway at Heathrow, instead standing as an independent in a byelection he argued should be seen as a gauge of local opinion on airport expansion.
But the Lib Dems based the debate around Brexit, arguing that one of the most strongly pro-remain constituencies in the country should have a say on being represented by an MP who supported leave, albeit quietly.
Olney insisted the impetus for this had come from voters. She told the Guardian: “It wasn’t a conscious choice in that respect – it was us responding to what constituents were talking about. And we’ve always been a pro-European party. We were the united remain party.”
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said: “This was a remarkable, come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives … If this was a general election, this swing would mean the Conservatives would lose dozens of seats to the Liberal Democrats – and their majority with it.”
He added: “We are carrying the torch for all of those who want a real opposition to this Conservative Brexit government.”
Speaking at the declaration to cheers from her team, Olney said she had become alarmed at the post-Brexit political mood.
“Richmond Park was full of people like me, who felt the country was going wrong, that the politics of anger and division were on the rise, that the liberal, tolerant values we took for granted were under threat,” she said.
“Today we have said no. We will defend the Britain we love. We will stand up for the open, tolerant Britain we believe in.”
A notably subdued Goldsmith thanked his team and insisted: “This byelection was not a political calculation. It was a promise that I made and it was a promise that I kept.”
A Conservative spokesman praised Goldsmith as “a popular figure” in the party, but added: “This result doesn’t change anything. The government remains committed to leaving the European Union and triggering article 50 by the end of March next year.
“In addition, we will continue to take decisive action in the national interest to secure the UK’s place the world – supporting a third runway at Heathrow to secure jobs and business opportunities for the next decade and beyond.”
In one of the more unusual and closely contested byelections of recent years, the Conservatives, Greens and Ukip stepped aside entirely. The Tories decided to not oppose Goldsmith, Ukip backed him and the Greens threw their support behind Olney.
Goldsmith, the defeated Conservative candidate this year for London mayor, campaigned entirely on local issues, particularly fears that the planned new runway for Heathrow will bring more plane noise to the south-west London constituency.
The Lib Dems poured huge resources into the seat. There were several visits by the party leader, Tim Farron, and other prominent Lib Dems including Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown.
Lib Dem sources said the party estimated it had spoken to 52% of eligible voters over the course of the campaign, with activists knocking on 20,000 doors last weekend.
On the day before polling, the Lib Dems even brought in prominent remain supporter Bob Geldof to drum up support for Olney, even though the musician-turned-campaigner admitted he had never voted for the party.
While Goldsmith had proved a popular local MP, he attracted severe criticism over his tactics in opposing Labour’s mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan. A number of critics said Goldsmith’s repeated suggestions that Khan, a Muslim, had links to Islamist militancy amounted to racism. Goldsmith has stood by his tactics.
Wolmar used his speech to say that a number of voters had told him they disliked Goldsmith’s “ghastly, disgusting” mayoral campaign, prompting shouts of “hear, hear” in the hall.
Olney said she had found Labour voters had particularly objected to Goldsmith’s mayoral methods: “Interestingly, that come up more among the Labour voters, who really objected to the mayoral campaign.”
The byelection has been seen as a test bed for the much-mooted idea of a so-called progressive alliance to defeat the Conservatives in future general elections. Expounded most clearly by the joint leader of the Green party, Caroline Lucas, it has won some limited support among a few Labour and Lib Dem MPs.
However, some local Greens were not keen and criticised the party for deciding not to stand a candidate.
Olney praised the Greens for standing aside, and said such arrangements could be necessary in future unless proportional representation is introduced.
“Once we have that voters will be free to express a more nuanced range of opinions,” she said. “At the moment it’s so tribal, it’s split so divided.”
For now, Olney said, she had to learn her new job very quickly: “I haven’t got the faintest clue what happens now. I didn’t expect it so I haven’t really made any plans.”
This article was written by Peter Walker Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 2nd December 2016 02.06 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010