Theresa May’s Conservatives have announced they will not fight a by-election against Zac Goldsmith after he quit as one of the party’s MPs in protest at Heathrow expansion.
The Tories said it was because Mr Goldsmith had been a “hard working champion” for his seat, but taking him on brings the risk of an embarrassing loss for Ms May to either the anti-Heathrow campaigner or the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Goldsmith announced he would resign as MP and stand in the ensuing by-election as an independent candidate, after Ms May’s Cabinet approved plans for a third runway at Heathrow.
A Conservative spokesperson said: “We disagree with Zac about the need for a by-election in light of this decision, but understand his position.
“He has been a hard-working champion for the people of Richmond Park, as we know he will continue to be if they re-elect him as their Member of Parliament, so we will not be putting up a candidate against him at this by-election.”
Earlier in the day Mr Goldsmith made a statement reminding his constituents of a promise he made to quit and trigger a by-election if his party ever approved Heathrow expansion, something he branded as “catastrophic”.
He said: “Today I must honour my promise. And so I have resigned as your Member of Parliament.
“And I will be standing in the by-election as an independent candidate. I know there will be some who see today not as an outrage, but as an opportunity to advance their party interests. But this by-election must be a referendum on Heathrow expansion.”
But despite the Conservatives failing to stand, the anti-Heathrow candidate may face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats who held the seat until 2010.
Mr Goldsmith supported Brexit in the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, whereas his constituency was staunchly pro-Remain, by a ratio of 72 per cent to 28 per cent. He also fought a City Hall campaign that saw him accused of racism in some quarters over the way he attacked Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan.
If the Lib Dem's achieved a similar swing in Richmond from the Tories, as they did in the recent Witney by-election, they would steal the seat from Mr Goldsmith.
Party Tim Farron said: "We are looking forward to building on our result in Witney and taking the fight to the Tories in Richmond Park as Britain's one truly pro-European party.
"A victory for the Liberal Democrats would put huge pressure on Theresa May to abandon her plans for an economically disastrous hard Brexit.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies