Battling over Brexit and Heathrow: on the campaign trail in Richmond Park
Zac Goldsmith is determined that next week’s by-election be a referendum on airport expansion. His Lib Dem opponent Sarah Olney has other plans.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the country less keen on fighting another election than I am,” says a resigned Zac Goldsmith as he screws the top half of his e-cigarette into place. “But I don’t think I had a choice.”
We are sat outside a local coffee house in his native Richmond so he can vape unabated, his head bowed as he gears up for another interview. The venue’s owner had just greeted the politician with a startled “hello”, and customers almost rose from their chairs as if a senior dignitary had entered the room.
Goldsmith appears battle weary from a year that saw his bid to become London’s next Conservative mayor come in for severe criticism. He then found himself on the winning side of the EU referendum, though he kept his Brexiteer credentials relatively quiet. Now he is running as an independent in a by-election all of his own making, after pledging in 2009 to resign as an MP if ministers backed a third runway at Heathrow. Goldsmith credits that promise with securing his election to Parliament the following year. So when the Government announced in October it was backing expansion at the south west London hub, the environmentalist’s fate was sealed.
The Tories decided not to field a candidate in Richmond Park after the local Conservative association came out for Goldsmith early on. Critics dispute just how much he is going it alone, however, after he was pictured with three Tory MPs on the campaign trail. Channelling his inner Ed Miliband, Goldsmith says his team is not far off completing 10,000 conversations in Richmond Park. He is sanguine about what he is hearing on the doorsteps, and with a majority of 23,000, he perhaps has reason to be optimistic.
His tenure in politics has seen Goldsmith become a cheerleader of the anti-Heathrow movement, and his energy levels peak when discussing the topic. Despite a sense of inevitability, he believes with a sustained effort he can win over sceptics in Parliament when expansion is voted on in 14 months’ time. “The reality is that most MPs… have a sort of lazy default position, which is Heathrow expansion. That is borne not of the facts and the arguments, but of historic relationships between Heathrow and government which need to be unpicked. And I can do that,” he says.
Goldsmith also cites two cases being lodged against expansion that he believes could derail ministers’ decision. One is that put forward by four Tory councillors in Wandsworth, Richmond, Hillingdon and Maidenhead, which Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Greenpeace recently lent their support to. Another is an intriguing sounding case querying the “independence of the Airports Commission”. Goldsmith – who reveals the claims are “extraordinary” – says “there will be others to follow”.
But would he resign if parliament backed a third Heathrow runway? “No. I’m asking people to back me to go into fight Heathrow expansion. I think I am the best bet on that,” he says. “I’m not guaranteeing that I’m going to win the campaign, because I don’t know that. But I guarantee that I’ll do whatever I can.”
Goldsmith is not afraid of speaking out against the Government and is no stranger to cross-party initiatives. He is also credited for his work as a constituency MP, taking Richmond Park from a Lib Dem stronghold to a solid Tory seat. While he says he would work with anyone on the Heathrow issue, he might struggle to win over London Mayor Khan, who he’s not spoken to since election night on 8 May. Goldsmith stresses that his mayoral bid has not been raised on the doorstep. What he does concede however is that Brexit most certainly has, after the borough of Richmond overwhelmingly backed Remain. “The Lib Dems have chosen to make this their key issue, so inevitably it is an issue that comes up,” he says.
Positioned opposite Mortlake station is a quaint eatery named Pickle and Rye. A poster screams “don’t go bacon my heart”, while a litany of sports caps hang from pegs across the walls. Instructions of how to follow the café’s Instagram page rest beside the counter. Sarah Olney is enjoying a cup of coffee following early morning campaigning. A relative unknown, the accountant joined the Lib Dems in the wake of the 2015 election, and is now their candidate in Richmond Park.
“I got my polling card the other day, and thought ‘oh wow, this is real,’” she says as I sit down for another injection of caffeine. Olney, a local, is something of a newbie when it comes to campaigning, especially when contrasted with Goldsmith. She is keen to paint the EU referendum as the key issue of the campaign. “It’s all about Brexit. So many people on the doorstep say ‘I voted for Zac or I voted Tory, but I’m really concerned or upset about Brexit so this time I’m going to vote for you’.”
My conversations with locals lend limited credence to this claim. Lifelong Richmond resident Anne, in her 60s, believes Goldsmith’s resignation makes him look “weak and ineffective”, and she was at odds with her MP in the EU referendum. But, like others I spoke with, Olney’s lack of recognition compared with Goldsmith means the Lib Dems don’t have her vote quite yet.
Goldsmith believes the Lib Dems have overplayed their hand on Brexit, however, and questions Olney’s apparent U-turn of now being in favour of a second vote on EU membership, despite a previous blog post saying we should not “re-run the referendum”. He also claims the Lib Dems have distributed leaflets to women in the constituency alleging he is parliament’s “second more eurosceptic MP”. “They do this quite often in elections. They say things which are just too extreme, and the effect is that people then doubt everything else that they’re saying,” he adds.
Olney though contends Goldsmith has overegged his role in the “apolitical” anti-Heathrow movement: “For him to say ‘the only way we can stop Heathrow is to appoint me as MP’ is actually ignoring a great deal of work done by thousands of other people over the decades. So it’s kind of an ego trip I think.”
After a strong second place in David Cameron’s Witney seat last month, a Lib Dem source told me they were going to “throw the house” at Richmond Park. Olney says turnout from senior party figures – from Nick Clegg to Tim Farron – has been “huge”. If elected on 1 December, Olney would become the Lib Dems’ only female MP, with the other eight all being white, middle-aged males. She says this not reflective of the wider membership, but concedes the party has more to do to bolster its ethnic minority and female representation.
As a relative newcomer to politics, Olney admits entering Parliament appears a daunting challenge. “I’ll have a lot to learn,” she says. Does she have any concerns about the current political climate? “Yes, I do, a lot of concerns. This opportunity came up, it’s sort of one of those things where the opportunity just opens up for you and what are you going to… you kind of have to. I was the right person at the right time, in the right place for a by-election,” she says.
“I feel very strongly about the whole European issue and it’s like right well if I’m going to have to be that person then I’m just going to have to do it. So, I feel very uneasy about the climate and the media and political life generally. But I just hope that I might be able to have an opportunity to do my bit and change that because I don’t want all this vitriol, I don’t want all this antagonism. I want politics to get back to being a bit more civilised, to be honest.”
Both candidates look worn out as they continue campaigning on a bitterly cold November day. One is enjoying his third public vote in a year, the other her first time running to be an MP. With Brexit and Heathrow expansion all on the table, just days remain in one of the most eagerly awaited by-elections in recent memory.