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Lib Dems pin hopes on Richmond as Heathrow row adds to Brexit blues

November 3, 2016 7:55 PM
By Toby Helm and Patrick Maguire in The Observer
Originally published by Rutland and South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

'Terrified' PM abandoned Heathrow opposition to appease big business, says Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney

Theresa May abandoned her opposition to a third runway at Heathrow only because she was "terrified" of being seen as anti-business after the Brexit vote, the Liberal Democrats claim.

Ahead of a byelection caused by the resignation of Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, the Lib Dems are preparing to unleash their biggest ever campaign on the Richmond Park and North Kingston seat, in the hope of winning over Tory voters who are against Heathrow expansion and concerned about the UK's exit from the EU.

The party's prospective candidate for the contest on 1 December, Sarah Olney, told the Observer it was clear that last week's move to approve a third runway - something the prime minister had told her own constituents in nearby Maidenhead that she opposed - was not taken on the basis of economic or environmental evidence.

"The decision on Heathrow was clearly driven not by concern for the arguments, still less for local people whose lives will be blighted, but by worries about Brexit," Olney said.

"Theresa May dared not block Heathrow because she was terrified of being seen as anti-business.

"In reality the economic case for a third runway is at best flaky, but this decision was all about public relations. People in Richmond could get an airport expansion they didn't want because of a Brexit they didn't want, from a prime minister who didn't want them either."

The Tories have since decided they will not put up their own candidate against Goldsmith. The contest was triggered last week when Goldsmith, a long-term opponent of Heathrow expansion but a hardline Brexit supporter, honoured a pledge to stand down if the go-ahead for a third runway was given, and announced he would stand as an independent.

The Lib Dems now believe they have a chance of overturning the huge 23,010 majority Goldsmith won at last year's general election by appealing to a local electorate of which 72% voted for Remain on 23 June, and most of which is fiercely against the airport's expansion.

Goldsmith starts out as the bookies' favourite, but the Lib Dems are determined to point to his pro-Brexit views and also to question how independent he is. On Saturday the local Conservative Association's website was still covered with pictures of Goldsmith and carried a message saying "support Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park constituency".

At rush hour on Friday evening, Goldsmith was joined by a team of canvassers outside Richmond station - several of whom were seasoned Tory activists.

The Lib Dems see the byelection as part of a fightback that began earlier this month when they leapfrogged Labour and Ukip to come second in the Witney byelection in Oxfordshire, caused by David Cameron's resignation.

"The Conservatives may be enjoying a huge poll lead but my sense is the public yearns for a credible, progressive opposition," Olney, an accountant, said. "That clearly cannot be provided by Labour now, which has no economic credibility and is unfit for government."

In each general election between 1997 and 2010, the Lib Dems won more than 40% of the vote in the Richmond seat, only to see their support slump to 19.3% at the last election.

On party leader Tim Farron's call for a second referendum on Brexit, Olney said it would take place only when May and her government had decided what Brexit meant.

"Once we have explored all the options, we may find Brexit is not what we want. But given that that is what people have voted for, parliament can't take it upon itself to reverse a decision to leave. It needs there to be a second referendum in which the real consequences are spelt out."

Within 48 hours of Goldsmith's standing down on Tuesday, the Lib Dems had leafleted the entire constituency and were trying to find a bigger office from which to mastermind their campaign.

Nassar Kessell, a party activist who was out on the streets on Friday, admitted that Goldsmith, who fought an unsuccessful campaign to become mayor of London earlier this year, was popular locally. But he was still beatable.

"There's no doubt that people like him. He's been the MP for a very long time. But there is certainly a part of the constituency that is upset about the issues he's championed - Brexit, for example. We can absolutely provide the alternative."