Voters in London take to polls for ‘Brexit by-election’
Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum in June 2016 (AFP Photo/Justin Tallis)
Residents of the posh London suburb of Richmond took to the polls on Thursday in a local by-election that has turned into a mini-referendum on Brexit in a pro-EU heartland.
Liberal Democrat challenger Sarah Olney, whose party wants a second referendum on Brexit, is hoping the result will shock Downing Street, as the government forges on towards the EU exit door.
Olney is running against Zac Goldsmith, who held the seat for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party but quit in protest after the government backed expanding the nearby Heathrow Airport.
He is now standing as an independent candidate.
“While some people feel very strongly about Heathrow expansion, lots more people feel much more strongly about Brexit,” Olney told AFP during the campaign.
“That’s really alarmed and upset people and they want to use this opportunity to send a message.”
In the June referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, 52 percent nationwide voted to leave.
But in the well-heeled borough of Richmond in southwest London, 69 percent voted to remain in the bloc.
Its 82-percent turnout, one of the highest in the UK, showed it was an issue locals felt passionate about.
The centrist and unambiguously pro-EU Lib Dems, reduced to a rump in the 2015 general election, are eyeing a comeback by filling the void for disgruntled ‘Remain’ voters.
– ‘Loyalty to Zac’ –
However, the 39-year-old Olney faces a tough task in overturning Goldsmith’s majority.
Both the Conservative and Brexit-cheerleading UKIP parties are giving him a clear run.
Goldsmith won Richmond from the Lib Dems in 2010 and retained it in the May 2015 general election with 58 percent of the vote.
Wealthy, suave, affable and soft-spoken, 41-year-old Goldsmith is Brexit royalty.
He is the son of the late tycoon financier Jimmy Goldsmith, whose high-spending Referendum Party, calling for a vote on UK-EU relations, got the anti-EU bandwagon rolling.
Zac Goldsmith’s understated, local approach seems to have won him support around Richmond.
“There’s a lot of loyalty to Zac round here,” said Jane McCready, 52, who sat enjoying a hot drink overlooking the River Thames last week.
But she added that Brexit was an issue: “I do have friends who are using this as another vote for ‘Remain’ (in the EU) by voting Lib Dem.”
However, Freddie Gates, 79, from Richmond, said he had voted in June to stay in the EU but now would be backing Goldsmith.
“The majority of the country said out, so you go along with it,” he said.
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