Theresa May ought to abandon her Brexit challenge in the Supreme Court and put Article 50 to a vote, according to the former Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, who is fighting the Richmond Park by-election as an independent.
Speaking to The Independent Mr Goldsmith said while it was “frustrating” not knowing the Government’s plans for leaving the EU he defended Theresa May for keeping her card close to her chest.
He added: “I think they should accept it and I think there should be a vote in Parliament. I’m pretty sure that vote would go through very easily – there’s very little opposition in voting for Article 50 so as far as I’m concerned the Prime Minister should do that and not spend months bickering with judges.”
Mr Goldsmith also vowed not to return to his former party before a general election. He was, however, more reluctant to dismiss the idea of re-joining his former colleagues entirely.
While he said, if elected, he would remain an independent for his “full term in Parliament”, he added: “It’s not clever to start planning two or three elections ahead because I’ve got a battle in my hands getting over this line.
“If I’m elected as an independent I will stay an independent – I don’t believe people should switch parties without going back to their electorate.
“I’m standing as an independent and will be an independent for this term. No one makes commitments two elections in advance, it’s pompous and it’s absurd and presumptuous to do so, so I’m not going to. It’s absurd for a politician to start talking about two, three, four elections into the future. I am standing as an independent – if I’m elected I will be an independent for the full term. I don’t even know if I’ll be standing in any further election.”
In ten days’ time voters in the Richmond Park constituency will head to the polls, following the decision by Mr Goldsmith to resign from the Conservative party in protest at Theresa May’s backing for the expansion of Heathrow airport. He has been a vocal critic of the plans for the past decade and promised his affluent constituents he would trigger a by-election long before he was elected six years ago.
Mr Goldsmith's resignation means he has no access to the infrastructure or the data available through the Conservative party machinery in the constituency. He’s had to build his campaign “from scratch” he adds.
“I’ve had a lot of help, a lot of volunteers and in a way it’s a good thing because we are knocking on doors in a completely random manner as opposed to following any old formula. That gives us a much more honest picture of what people are thinking locally. It’s obviously a big challenge, we’re up against a national party machine but, so far, it’s been very positive – it’s going well.
But his old colleagues, and friends in the party have not been totally absent in the campaign. Just last week he was photographed with Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg and the former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villers. Mr Goldsmith is hopeful more will join him on the frontline in the final stretch of campaigning in the by-election. Current Cabinet ministers, including his friend the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, however, have been blocked by Downing Street from l¬ending a hand in the fight.
“I’ve had lots of support from local Conservatives,” he added. “After I resigned they had a meeting and sent a message back to the party nationally to say they were backing me in the campaign irrespective of whether there was an official Conservative candidate. As a consequence, the party took the pragmatic view that it’s probably not a good idea to put a candidate up.”
But while the constituency is considered a safe Tory seat by many – Mr Goldsmith received 58 per cent of the vote share compared with 19 per cent for his closest rival in 2015 – the Liberal Democrats are making a concerted effort to retake the seat, which was held by them until 2010. The party leader Tim Farron has travelled to the constituency every Wednesday morning since the announcement of the by-election.
As Mr Goldsmith attempts to focus the campaign on Heathrow, the Lib Dems are rallying around Brexit in the constituency that voted 72 per cent to Remain at the EU referendum. It is quite clearly the dividing line between the two candidates (both of them oppose Heathrow expansion) and it is one the Lib Dems are exploiting. “The by-election here is a clear choice between two candidates with very different views on Brexit,” claims the party’s campaigning literature handed out to commuters outside Richmond station on one Wednesday morning.
Speaking to The Independent their candidate Sarah Olney, an accountant who joined the Lib Dems 18 months ago following the party’s catastrophic general election result, said Conservative voters in the constituency, who had voted Remain at the referendum, have already promised to vote for her.
She added: “When Zac Goldsmith stood down he wanted the campaign to be a referendum on Heathrow but we started campaigning on the basis as we thought that is what people wanted to hear about. But time and time again people were saying they care about Heathrow… but what I really, really care about is Brexit – that’s what is really upsetting.
But the focus on Brexit is clearly irritating Mr Goldsmith’s campaign – shortly after our interview his publicist calls to suggest the questions were “unfair” and that there was no focus on Heathrow.
“The Lib Dems have been massively downplaying how important Heathrow is in this area,” Mr Goldsmith added. “But I think they’ve misjudged that and of course there are lots of other issues. People know that the election is happening for only one reason and that is because of Heathrow expansion. Most people appreciate the fact I kept that promise and the impression I’m getting is that there is a big appetite among constituents to use this to vote against Heathrow.”
He continued: “But I’m not sure there’s an appetite to re-run that referendum and that’s what the Lib Dems are hoping. I don’t think there position really adds up. My view is that I didn’t campaign on the issue but I voted Brexit. I think it would be very dangerous to try and stop Brexit,”
Mr Goldsmith also accused his Lib Dem rival Ms Olney of U-turning on Brexit, claiming before the by-election she was “quite emphatic that there should not be a re-run of the referendum”. The official position of the party is that there should be a second referendum on the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU. If this isn’t granted Mr Farron will instruct his MPs to vote against triggering Article 50.
“The fact that she has completely turned her position on its head in a matter days purely to scrape up a few votes in the area I don’t think goes down that well with a highly-political and educated constituency. I think it looks cynical, and it is cynical,” Mr Goldsmith added.
His campaign in Richmond Park, however, follows an unsuccessful bid for London mayor, in which critics, including some Conservatives, branded his tactics against Sadiq Khan as “racist” and “disgusting”. Asked whether he believed the controversial campaign would have any negative effect on the upcoming by-election, he responded: “The outcome of the mayoral election in this part of the world was a good one. It may not have been for the whole of London…no mayoral candidate has done better in the mayoral election in this part of the world than I did.
Does he regret the tactics used in the campaign? “I regret losing the race because I had an exciting plan I’d put a lot of work into developing a programme for London. My manifesto was brilliant – I didn’t write it myself which is what allows me to say that.
“But I hope the incumbent, the current mayor takes the best bits and uses them because there’s some good stuff there.”
Ms Olney said that while the campaign “did damage his reputation” but said she has deliberately not made it part of her campaign. “We should aim for a better politics,” she added.
The by-election has also proved to be a useful experiment in the concept of a “progressive alliance” – and the obstacles it faces. Despite suggestions from senior figures in the Labour party to test the concept with the Lib Dems and not field a candidate, they eventually chose Christian Wolmar – a former contender of the Labour nomination for mayor of London.
And Ms Olney appeared relieved there was a Labour candidate. “It’s a tough one because between us and Labour there are large differences on policy. I don’t want to be standing in this election as a representative of Jeremy Corbyn. I think I’m more comfortable that they are standing as a general rule… I’m not Corbyn’s candidate,” she said.
The local Green party decided not to contest the seat but Ms Olney rejected there was any deliberate attempt to form an alliance. Ukip, which came fifth in the seat at the general election last year, also decided not to put a candidate and endorsed Mr Goldsmith for the job.
While Mr Goldsmith appeared confident he will remain the representative for the constituency, he added: “It’s a battle, clearly.” One of the latest polls by BMG for the London’s Evening Standard newspaper found Mr Goldsmith was on course for a solid 56 per cent of the vote – down by just two points from the last general election.
But the Lib Dem leader believes the momentum is in his party’s favour and that the by-election on 1 December could prove to be the starting point in a Liberal revival.
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