Lo­cal vote in Lon­don, Brexit bat­tle­ground

Sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on Brexit

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

A lo­cal by-elec­tion for parliament in the posh Lon­don sub­urb of Rich­mond on Thurs­day is threat­en­ing to turn into a mini-ref­er­en­dum on Brexit, with the de­fend­ing MP a Brex­i­teer in a proEU heart­land.

Lib­eral Demo­crat chal­lenger Sarah Ol­ney, whose party wants a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on Brexit, is hop­ing the re­sult will shock Down­ing Street, as the gov­ern­ment ploughs on to­wards the EU exit door.

Ol­ney is run­ning against Zac Gold­smith, who held the seat for Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s Con­ser­va­tive Party but quit in protest af­ter the gov­ern­ment backed ex­pand­ing the nearby Heathrow Air­port.

He is now stand­ing as an in­de­pen­dent can­di­date. “Speak­ing to vot­ers, what was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear was that while some peo­ple feel very strongly about Heathrow ex­pan­sion, lots more peo­ple feel much more strongly about Brexit,” Ol­ney told AFP. “That’s re­ally alarmed and up­set peo­ple and they want to use this op­por­tu­nity to send a mes­sage.”

In the June ref­er­en­dum on Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union, 52 per­cent na­tion­wide voted to leave. But in the well­heeled bor­ough of Rich­mond in south­west Lon­don, 69 per­cent voted to re­main in the bloc, the 19th high­est of 326 vot­ing ar­eas.

The 82 per­cent turnout, one of the high­est in the UK, showed it was an is­sue lo­cals felt pas­sion­ate about. The cen­trist and un­am­bigu­ously pro-EU Lib Dems, re­duced to a rump in the 2015 gen­eral elec­tion, are eye­ing a come­back by fill­ing the void for dis­grun­tled ‘Re­main’ vot­ers.

Mes­sage to the heart

“The things peo­ple want to talk about in this cam­paign are things we’ve had a very clear po­si­tion on,” said Ol­ney, meet­ing com­muters out­side Rich­mond rail­way sta­tion.

The 39-year-old ac­coun­tant only joined the Lib Dems last year and was rapidly se­lected as their next Rich­mond Park can­di­date for the House of Com­mons. For­mer Lib Dem leader Paddy Ash­down, 75, said Thurs­day’s vote could “send a mes­sage right to the heart of Down­ing Street”. “Rich­mond can speak for the peo­ple of Bri­tain, the mil­lions who want the gov­ern­ment to change course and don’t want a hard Brexit. If they vote Lib­eral Demo­crat, that’s a mes­sage Down­ing Street will hear,” he told AFP on the cam­paign trail.

How­ever, the Lib Dems face a tough task in over­turn­ing Gold­smith’s ma­jor­ity. Both the Con­ser­va­tive and Brexit-cheer­lead­ing UKIP par­ties are giv­ing him a clear run.

Gold­smith won Rich­mond from the Lib Dems in 2010 and retained it in the May 2015 gen­eral elec­tion with 58 per­cent of the vote.

Book­mak­ers have Gold­smith as the 1/3 favourite, with Ol­ney 5/2, and then the main op­po­si­tion Labour can­di­date at 200/1. Five oth­ers are also stand­ing. Wealthy, suave, af­fa­ble and soft-spo­ken, 41-year-old Gold­smith is Brexit roy­alty.

He is the son of the late ty­coon fi­nancier Jimmy Gold­smith, whose high-spending Ref­er­en­dum Party, call­ing for a vote on UK-EU re­la­tions, got the anti-EU band­wagon rolling. Zac Gold­smith made a bid for Lon­don mayor in May but he was beaten by Labour’s Sadiq Khan and was crit­i­cised for the tone of his cam­paign, of­ten fo­cus­ing on Khan’s Mus­lim faith. AFP sought an in­ter­view with Gold­smith but he is fo­cus­ing on pri­vate grass­roots campaigning.

‘To­tally dis­en­fran­chised’

And his un­der­stated, lo­cal ap­proach seems to have won him sup­port around Rich­mond. “There’s a lot of loy­alty to Zac round here,” said Jane McCready, 52, who sat en­joy­ing a hot drink over­look­ing the River Thames.

But she added that Brexit was an is­sue: “I do have friends who are us­ing this as an­other vote for ‘Re­main’ (in the EU) by vot­ing Lib Dem.” How­ever, Fred­die Gates, 79, from Rich­mond, said he had voted in June to stay in the EU but now would be back­ing Gold­smith. “The ma­jor­ity of the coun­try said out, so you go along with it,” he said.

But lo­cal sur­veyor Roy McClure, a life­long Con­ser­va­tive, was so fu­ri­ous about the lack of a Tory can­di­date that he con­sid­ered stand­ing him­self, be­fore back­ing Ol­ney. Typ­i­cal Rich­mond vot­ers-soft Con­ser­va­tive, pro-EU and anti-Heathrow ex­pan­sion-have been left “to­tally dis­en­fran­chised”, he told AFP. —AFP

LON­DON: Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May re­acts dur­ing a joint press con­fer­ence with Pol­ish Prime Min­is­ter Beata Szydlo (un­seen) at 10 Down­ing Street in cen­tral Lon­don on November 28, 2016, fol­low­ing their meet­ing. —AFP

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