Tory MPs found campaigning for ‘independent candidate’ Zac Goldsmith

Mr Goldsmith was joined by pro-Heathrow Tories

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Zac Goldsmith’s claim to be an “independent” by-election candidate has been dealt a blow after it emerged Conservative MPs have been campaigning alongside him.

Mr Goldsmith triggered a by-election in Richmond Park after the Government confirmed it would expand Heathrow airport, which is unpopular locally due to the noise pollution it causes.

On paper he has stood as an “independent” candidate opposed to Government policy, but his rivals in the seat claim that once returned to Parliament he would still have strong links to the Conservatives.

The suspicions were given credence this week after a photograph posted on social media and reported on the politics.co.uk website showed Mr Goldsmith campaigning alongside a brace of serving Tories.

Theresa Villiers, the former Northern Ireland secretary and Tania Matthias, another West London Tory MP, were among MPs pounding pavements with the nominally independent candidate.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a high-profile Tory backbencher, was also present campaigning for Mr Goldsmith.

Mr Rees-Mogg’s appearance will raise particular eyebrows because he has a strong history of backing the expansion of Heathrow.

In September the Tory described a third runway at the airport as “essential for the nation” and celebrated the suggestion that “the prospect of Brexit will speed the third runway upon its way”.

Furthermore the Conservatives are not opposing Mr Goldsmith’s candidacy in the seat. Mr Goldsmith also has the backing of his local Conservative association in Richmond Park.

The Liberal Democrats, who are Mr Goldsmith's main opponents in the seat having held it until 2010, said the Tory support for Mr Goldsmith undermined his claim to be independent.

“This picture shows clearly the Brexiteers uniting," a party spokesperson told The Independent.

“The Hard Brexiteers are worried that the election is slipping away from Goldsmith and they have been drafted in to help him.

“He's an independent in name only and is being backed by Tory HQ and UKIP.”

A Liberal Democrat source also pointed out that nine out of the 10 names on Mr Goldsmith's election nomination form were senior Conservative councillors, former candidates or activists.

But Mr Goldsmith, who was accused of running a "racist" campaign for Mayor of London earlier this year, hit back at the claims through a spokesperson.

"Zac's standing as an independent candidate on a matter of principle has attracted cross-Party support and help," the spokesperson said.

"The Conservative Party has said publicly that backbenchers could make their own decision on whether to support Zac.

"Many are doing so because they respect the fact that he is keeping a pledge to voters to lead the fight against any expansion at Heathrow.

"There is no secret about the picture on which this story is based: it was posted on social media by Zac's team. More than half those in the picture are actually remainers,"

The Richmond Park by-election will be held on 1 December. Labour is also standing a candidate, despite a suggestion from some of its MPs that it should not in order to not split the anti-Goldsmith vote. The Green party has however decided to stand down in the seat.

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