Pro-EU can­di­date wins ‘Brexit by-elec­tion’

Bat­tle be­came a mini-ref­er­en­dum on Brexit

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s gov­ern­ment suf­fered a re­buke over its plans to pull Bri­tain out of the EU yes­ter­day af­ter vot­ers in the London sub­urb of Rich­mond ousted a eu­roscep­tic law­maker in fa­vor of a pro-Euro­pean can­di­date. In a stun­ning up­set, Lib­eral Demo­crat can­di­date Sarah Ol­ney over­turned a large ma­jor­ity to de­feat Zac Gold­smith, who had held the seat for May’s Con­ser­va­tive party since 2010, in a bat­tle that be­came a mini-ref­er­en­dum on Brexit.

“Our mes­sage is clear: we do not want a hard Brexit,” Ol­ney said as she be­came her party’s ninth MP with 49.68 per­cent of the vote, com­pared to 45.15 per­cent for Gold­smith. “We do not want to be pulled out of the sin­gle mar­ket, and we will not let in­tol­er­ance, di­vi­sion and fear win.” Gold­smith had re­signed in protest at the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to back a new run­way at London’s Heathrow air­port, prompt­ing a by-elec­tion in which he stood as an in­de­pen­dent, al­though with Con­ser­va­tive sup­port.

The Lib Dems, who had pre­vi­ously held the seat, sensed an op­por­tu­nity to win it back by fo­cus­ing on Gold­smith’s sup­port for Brexit, which was at odds with most of his con­stituents. Flood­ing the area with cam­paign­ers, they high­lighted their de­mands for Bri­tain to stay in the sin­gle mar­ket and for a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum on the fi­nal terms of Brexit. “That mes­sage has been re­sound­ingly backed by the peo­ple of Rich­mond Park,” said party leader Tim Far­ron.

‘Doesn’t change any­thing’

The Con­ser­va­tive party did not field a can­di­date in Thurs­day’s by­elec­tion and of­fered its “com­mis­er­a­tions” to Gold­smith, who had been re­elected only last year with a 23,000 ma­jor­ity. A spokesman said: “This re­sult doesn’t change any­thing. “The gov­ern­ment re­mains com­mit­ted to leav­ing the Euro­pean Union and trig­ger­ing Ar­ti­cle 50 (be­gin­ning the for­mal exit process) by the end of March next year.” Vis­i­bly down­cast, Gold­smith ac­knowl­edged the re­sult with a brief state­ment that de­fended his de­ci­sion to re­sign over Heathrow’s ex­pan­sion, which is strongly op­posed in west London due to noise and pol­lu­tion con­cerns. But the im­por­tance of Brexit was high­lighted by the en­dorse­ment of his cam­paign by the UK In­de­pen­dence Party (UKIP), a lead­ing force in se­cur­ing the vote to leave the Euro­pean Union in the June ref­er­en­dum.

In that vote, 52 per­cent of Bri­tons na­tion­wide voted out, while 69 per­cent of vot­ers in Rich­mond Park opted to stay in. The de­feat caps a tough year for Gold­smith, an en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paigner and son of the late ty­coon fi­nancier Jimmy Gold­smith, who founded the now de­funct an­tiEuro­pean Ref­er­en­dum Party. The 41year-old lost his bid to be­come mayor of London in May in a bit­ter and di­vi­sive cam­paign that saw his party try to paint Labour’s Mus­lim can­di­date Sadiq Khan as an ex­trem­ist.

‘Real op­po­si­tion’

Ol­ney, 39, is a new­comer to pol­i­tics-an ac­coun­tant who joined the Lib Dems only in May 2015. But her vic­tory is a huge boost for the party, which was al­most de­stroyed in last year’s gen­eral elec­tion af­ter five years in coali­tion gov­ern­ment with the Con­ser­va­tives. “The mes­sage is clear: the Lib­eral Democrats are back and we are car­ry­ing the torch for all of those who want a real op­po­si­tion to this Con­ser­va­tive Brexit gov­ern­ment,” Far­ron said.

The turnout was un­usu­ally high for a by-elec­tion, at 53.6 per­cent. The gov­ern­ment is cur­rently fight­ing a le­gal chal­lenge to pre­vent par­lia­ment hav­ing the fi­nal say on when Ar­ti­cle 50 is trig­gered, but Ol­ney said that if there is a vote, she will block the move. “That’s been a cen­tral part of my cam­paign and now I’ve been given a very clear man­date that that’s what they want me to do,” she told BBC News. The High Court ruled last month that par­lia­ment must have a vote but the gov­ern­ment has ap­pealed to the Supreme Court, which will be­gin hear­ing ar­gu­ments on Mon­day.

—AFP

RICH­MOND: Newly elected Lib­eral Demo­crat MP for Rich­mond Park Sarah Ol­ney (L) cel­e­brates with her hus­band Ben (R) and party sup­port­ers af­ter win­ning her seat.

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