On Friday (2 December), Sarah Olney of the British Pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats, won a parliamentary seat by beating the Conservative party’s Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park. Olney’s win is also a strong “NO” to Theresa May’s government: "Our message is clear: we do not want a hard Brexit; we do not want to be pulled out of the single market; and we will not let intolerance, division and fear win," she said after her victory. 

Against Brexit

In June’s referendum, the Richmond Park and North Kingston area had supported the Remain campaign. The Lib Dems organised their position around the issue of Brexit and argued that, as a pro-remain constituency, Richmond Park should have a say in the Brexit negotiations by having its own representative. Olney campaigned for the parliamentary seat by promising to vote against triggering article 50. The Richmond Park residents “sent a shockwave through this Conservative Brexit government,” Olney said. 

The byelection victory was hailed as a rejection of hard Brexit. Zac Goldsmith, the son of a billionaire, and a millionaire himself, was a Brexit supporter. But he was also a “chancer” and a “shameless” player, since, when he was running for the London mayoralty, he repeatedly attacked his Labour opponent, Sadiq Khan, by saying he was “providing cover to extremists.” For some critics, the Tory attitude of “divide and rule”, especially in a cosmopolitan place like London, was a dangerous attempt to win votes by creating community tensions. 

Olney, was backed by Labour voters and a third of Tory voters who supported the Leave campaign, managing to overturn the Conservatives’ 23,000 majority. The result also reduces Theresa May’s majority in parliament, which will prove to be significant when voting to trigger article 50. 

Response

Olney explained that she had become alarmed at the post-Brexit political situation: “Richmond Park was full of people like me, who felt the country was going wrong, that the politics of anger and division were on the rise, that the liberal, tolerant values we took for granted were under threat.”

Talking to Sky News, Olney said: "It does look now as if we can have a vote in Parliament that might override the referendum. And I will, obviously, be voting to Remain because that is always what I have believed."

The Lib Dems’ victory is a significant development in the Brexit landscape that reminds us that the Britain people want to defend is an open and tolerant one; not the “Ukip vision” of a divisive and xenophobic closed society.  

The Conservative spokesman said that this changes nothing: "The government remains committed to leaving the European Union and triggering Article 50 by the end of March next year."

The Lib Dems leader said that “This result might change the direction of British politics. It’s about momentum.” He added: “If I tell you that nearly a third of Tory voters from the last election who voted leave in June voted Liberal Democrat yesterday, you will see that this is not just about remain versus leave rerun, it’s about people trying to say to Theresa May, we do not like the extreme version of Brexit outside the single market you are taking us down.”

Alternative to the Conservative and Labour Parties

The Lib Dems position offers a “moderate, decent alternative” to the two main parties, Tim Farron said. The Lib Dem leader praised his party by saying that, “We are carrying the torch for all of those who want a real opposition to this Conservative Brexit government.” Heading towards a hard Brexit is something that has become a major concern to many people and businesses. 

Consequences

The by-election result is a blow to Theresa May and her handling of Brexit. This means that an early general election might be less likely, as the Lib Dems are gaining momentum. But they need to win again and again, especially the more difficult Eurosceptic areas of south-west England. 

The result today is also a warning to the Labour party to make its voice heard and not withdraw in the background. But it’s also a positive development amidst the regressive populism of Farage and the widespread xenophobia that is threateningly covering its veil across the world. As a Guardian columnist said, “Good riddance” Goldsmith. Any change from now on is welcome.