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UK voters reject ''hard Brexit'' in shock Lib Dem by-election victory

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By Pierre Bertrand
UK voters reject ''hard Brexit'' in shock Lib Dem by-election victory

UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government suffered a shock election result Friday losing a London constituency in what is being described as a protest against the UK leaving the European Union.

Pro-EU Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney won the south west London constituency of Richmond Park, running a campaign promising to vote in parliament against the UK leaving the EU.

Olney beat incumbent and Brexit campaigner Zach Goldsmith, winning 20,510 votes to Goldsmith’s 18,638. The result overturns a Conservative Party majority in the constituency since 2015.

“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,” Olney said following her election victory.

Goldsmith, a former candidate for London Mayor, ran as an independent after quitting the Conservative Party when the government decided to expand London’s Heathrow Airport. The decision was a locally contentious issue that Goldsmith himself opposed.

The Conservative Party did not, however, present a candidate to run in the by-election.

London voted overwhelmingly to remain within the European Union and Olney’s election victory narrows the Conservative Party’s already slender 13-seat working majority in Parliament.

The election result is sending shockwaves throughout the UK as Olney only joined politics 18 months ago, and was not expected to carry the result.

A London Evening Standard and BMG Research constituency poll, published on Monday this week, predicted Goldsmith would win the Richmond vote by 56 percent.
The Liberal Democrats appear to have successfully exploited the disconnect between Richmond voters on the referendum and Goldsmiths’ campaign for Brexit.

Now Olney will be one of nine MPs for the Liberal Democrats.

Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, hailed her election victory
saying it is a “come-from-nowhere upset that will terrify the Conservatives.”

“If this was a General Election, this swing would mean the Conservatives would lose dozens of seats to the Liberal Democrats,” Farron said in a statement.

The warning signs of a possible electoral revolt against Prime Minister May’s Conservative leadership had already appeared two months ago during the by-election of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s seat in Witney.

While the Conservatives held on to Witney, that election saw support for the Liberal Democrats skyrocket, a swing Liberal Democrat leaders at the time said they hope could be the start of a nation-wide rejection of Brexit and PM May’s leadership.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s man appointed to lead the EU’s Brexit negotiations congratulated Olneyn – sparking outrage among Brexit campaigners incensed by what they see is Verhofstadt’s interjection in UK politics.

Whether Olney will keep her campaign promise to vote against Brexit remains to be seen and depends entirely on whether the UK Supreme Court grants Parliament the authority to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Open Europe Today, a non-partisan and independent policy think tank specialising on Brexit, said it does not believe the UK House of Commons would vote to block Brexit.

MPs are conscious the referendum result is politically binding and if they vote against the wishes of the UK electorate, they could be threatening their chances at re-election, said Vincenzo Scarpetta, a senior policy expert for the think tank, in an interview with euronews.

“My impression is there appears to be very little buyer’s remorse on both sides,” Scarpetta said. “We don’t expect parliament to block the triggering of Article 50.”

The UK government has remained committed to starting divorce proceedings from the EU by March 2017.