Brexit Blow for May as Pro-EU Party Wins London By-Election

  • Zac Goldsmith had forced election over Heathrow expansion
  • First success for Liberal Democrats after 2015 meltdown

Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney.

Photographer: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats unexpectedly gained a U.K. parliamentary seat in a by-election, a result that may further complicate Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to begin the process of leaving the European Union early next year.

QuickTake Brexit

Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney won the seat of Richmond Park, a southwest London district that overwhelmingly backed staying in the EU in June’s referendum. Olney, who pledged to vote against the invoking of Article 50 that starts the process of quitting the EU, overturned a 23,000 vote majority won last year by pro-Brexit Zac Goldsmith, who was running as an independent with support from May’s Tories.

“The people of Richmond Park and North Kingston have sent a shockwave through this Conservative Brexit government, and our message is clear,” Olney said in a speech after the result was announced in the early hours of Friday. “We do not want a hard Brexit. We do not want to be pulled out of the single market, and we will not let intolerance, division and fear win.”

The party, which held the district until 2010, put Brexit at the heart of the contest, calling for a second referendum on the exit terms achieved by May and threatening to vote in Parliament against her plan to trigger the two-year countdown to leaving by the end of March. Olney won 20,510 votes compared to 18,638 for Goldsmith and 1,515 for the Labour Party’s Christian Wolmar. The result cuts May’s majority in the 650-member House of Commons to just 12.

Goldsmith had been clear favorite with bookmakers to retain the district. He ran as an independent after quitting his seat in October to protest the expansion of nearby Heathrow Airport, as he’d pledged to do if May’s government decided to go ahead with a third runway. It’s the second political blow to Goldsmith this year, having lost to Labour’s Sadiq Khan in May’s London mayoral election.

“This by-election that we have just had was not a political calculation, it was a promise that I made and it was a promise that I kept,” said Goldsmith, whose hopes of it being a referendum on the airport were dashed when Olney said she also opposed a new runway.

May and her fellow Conservative ministers have come under attack from opposition parties for failing to give details of the government’s demands for its post-Brexit deal. A YouGov Plc poll conducted in the middle of last month found only 18 percent of respondents saying the government is doing a good job in negotiating the divorce from the EU.

The next big test of May’s policy comes in the U.K. Supreme Court on Monday. Judges will begin a four-day hearing of the government’s appeal against a High-Court ruling that parliamentary approval is needed to invoke Article 50.

The Liberal Democrat victory marks the first time the party has gained a seat in a House of Commons by-election since 2006. The party formed a coalition government with the Conservatives under David Cameron in 2010, but was almost wiped out in the 2015 general election. There have been signs in recent months of a fightback. They quadrupled their share of the vote in a by-election in October in Cameron’s old district of Witney in Oxfordshire.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron claimed people who voted to leave the EU had switched from the Conservatives to his party because they are worried about the prospect of a “hard Brexit” outside the European single market and the customs union.

“By-elections have a habit of not changing the government but changing the direction of a government,” Farron said in an interview with BBC Radio Friday. “This is about people trying to say to Theresa May ‘we do not like the extreme version of Brexit outside the single market you’re taking us towards.”’

The Conservatives, in a statement, said the 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.”

Neither the Conservatives nor the U.K. Independence Party ran against Goldsmith, who was the Tories’ losing candidate in this year’s London Mayoral election, while the pro-EU Greens stood aside in favor of Olney. With all the main candidates opposing the decision by May’s cabinet in October to approve a third runway at Heathrow, Goldsmith had been relying on his personal popularity among constituents to gain re-election.

“Those looking for a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all will take heart from the victory but I don’t think it’s necessarily one that is representative of sentiment in the country or sentiment in Parliament,” Mujtaba Rahman, European analyst for Eurasia Group, told Bloomberg Radio. “I still think we’re heading for a hard Brexit trajectory because nobody wants to vote down moves to Article 50 given what that would imply about moving against the majority of the population.”

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