Boeings before midnight, Airbuses at dawn: that is the pattern of departures from Heathrow. In the first hour after the polls closed at 10pm on Thursday night, around 7,000 people fled the country by air from Heathrow – mostly aboard the stream of wide-bodied Boeings heading east and south. Many of them flew directly overhead the Twickenham sports hall where votes for Richmond Park were being counted.
The arithmetic at London’s key Lib-Con marginal, Richmond Park, proved so protracted that the winning candidate was still waiting for a first Sky News interview when the narrow-bodied Airbuses to Madrid, Milan and Vienna began buzzing overhead.
Richmond Park is a curious constituency in many respects. It is one of a trio of seats – alongside High Peak and Forest of Dean – to be named after a tourist attraction. Most of the electorate actually lives outside the ancient walls of London’s largest Royal Park; voters reside beyond the fallow deer, in the leafiest, wealthiest and prettiest swathe of south-west London. With the average four-bedroom house selling for well over £1m, Richmond Park is natural Tory territory. Yet the LibDems had held the seat since it was created in 1997; the former Mayoral candidate Susan Kramer enjoyed a majority just short of 4,000. Her challenger was the young man at the top of the Westminster candidates’ rich list, the “eco-Conservative” Zak Goldsmith – worth, conservatively, £300m. He arrived after the last of the late-evening 747s accelerated towards the Far East, and as the night dragged on his entourage expanded, notably when his elegant sister, Jemima Khan, joined him at 2.30am.
Both Kramer and Goldsmith proposed radical ideas on transport policy. She campaigned for Kingston station to be moved from Transport for London’s Zone 6 on the scheme of things to Zone 5, a piece of transportational gerrymandering aimed at cutting fares for commuting locals. He vowed to cut the number of short-haul flights using Heathrow in order to reduce the noise above leafy Richmond.
At seven minutes to six in the morning, the noise level inside the sports hall became deafening. As is customary, the returning officer invited the agents and candidates for a preview of the results in a corner of the hall. As is not customary, Goldsmith’s gestures gave the game away and prompted a chant of “Zac, Zac, Zac …”
The scrum that followed the official announcement would not have been out of place at Twickenham rugby station, opposite. Somehow I found myself face to face with the MP for a constituency whose name resembles that of a 1930s repertory actor. Goldsmith will provide the Tories with a useful shade of green. Would he, I wondered, expect a ministerial role in a Cameron government?
”I don’t know what it’s like to be an MP yet, let alone a front-bencher.”
He was not inclined to ask for tips from Susan Kramer, who he accused of “fighting dirty” with a campaign that “appalled” him.
Lib Dem canvassing constituency returns presumably pointed to a substantial loss; Kramer arrived at the count 10 minutes before the declaration and left five minutes afterwards. Her prospects, like the 6am TAP Airbus to Lisbon that glinted in the dawn sky as she left the hall, were heading south.