It’s being seen as the first major setback for the Tories since Brexit, as their eco-friendly, former London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith lost his Richmond seat to the Liberal Democrats in a by-election he triggered himself.
Goldsmith stepped down from his 23,000 majority seat in protest at the government’s decision to expand Heathrow Airport – something he vowed to oppose in his last electoral manifesto. But the move backfired when the millionaire was unseated by Liberal Democrat challenger Sarah Olney in the early hours of Friday.
The Lib Dems poured major resources into the race after being left with just eight male MPs at the 2015 general election. It’s believed that their staunch pro-European Union position during and after the Brexit vote resulted in Olney finishing nearly 2,000 votes ahead of Goldsmith, who was running as an independent. Another recent by-election in the Oxfordshire constituency of Witney saw the Lib Dem vote go up by 19.3 per cent, despite still losing to the Conservatives.
“Sarah is a reminder that populism does not automatically have to win,” said Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron. “Those results, Brexit, Trump, the last general election, there was nothing inevitable about them. It is entirely possible for moderate progressive people to win through.
“This is the beginning not just of the British people choosing to own what happens next over Brexit, it’s also the beginning of Britain finally having a decent, moderate, tolerant opposition to the Tories that fills the space that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have left behind. This is the beginning of something special.”
Goldsmith was left visibly forlorn by the result, but said:“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.”
“2016, a garbage year, apart from seeing Zac Goldsmith lose twice” – the left reflects on the year.
— Stephen Bush (@stephenkb) December 2, 2016
His fellow Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told BBC Radio 4 on Friday morning: “The Lib Dems are quite good at winning by-elections but that doesn’t lead to a fundamental change in the political firmament.”
“I rather more share your analysis that this was a vote on Brexit. It was a very strongly pro-Remain constituency and there is understandably a disgruntlement amongst people who are very strongly pro-Remain that the majority of the country went against them,” he said.
Commentators also suggested the results would make it unlikely for Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger a general election before 2020. In a piece for the Telegraph, the paper’s executive editor James Kirkup quips: “If a sitting MP with a majority of more than 20,000 (even an MP as bad as Mr. Goldsmith) isn’t safe, then we truly live in madly unpredictable times.
“And these are not the circumstances in which a careful and risk-averse politician like Mrs. May will want to gamble everything she’s got.”
Well done Lib Dems enthusiastically briefing stories of Labour voters “who say they fucking hate us but are willing to back us over Brexit”.
— Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) December 1, 2016
It was reported by other journalists on the eve of the results that Labour voters in Richmond had opted to vote for Olney rather than their own candidate in revenge over Brexit.