Tim Farron has claimed the Lib Dem by-election victory in Richmond Park proves even people who voted to leave the European Union do not want a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit.
On Thursday Sarah Olney pulled off a shock victory in the south-London seat by beating incumbent Zac Goldsmith - overhauling his 23,000 majority.
Speaking to BBC radio 4’s Today programme this morning, the Lib Dem leader said while the result would not “change the government” it could “change the direction” of Theresa May’s approach to Brexit.
“Nearly a third of Tory voters from the last election who voted to ‘Leave’ in June voted Liberal Democrat yesterday,” he said. “This was not just about a ‘Remain’ vs ‘Leave’ rerun. This was 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’.”
Farron also said the result, which takes the Lib Dems from eight to nine MPs in the Commons, showed voters “desperately wanted a moderate, decent alternative to the Tories now Labour have shuffled off the main stage”.
Labour was never expected to perform well in the by-election. However the party’s candidate, Christian Wolmar, won just 1,515 votes - which is fewer votes than the 1,600 members Richmond Park Labour Party claims to have.
The by-election was triggered when Goldsmith quit the Conservative Party to run as an independent in protest at his government’s decision to expand Heathrow.
However the Lib Dems turned the vote into an argument about Brexit. Richmond Park voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU. Goldsmith was in favour of Brexit.
Speaking in Richmond this morning, Farron said the result showed the “populism” of Brexit or Donald Trump did not “automatically have to win”.
He said Olny’s victory proved it was “entirely possible for moderate, progressive people to win through” and that voters had decided to “send a message to Theresa May that the British people did not vote for a hard Brexit”.
“What was really striking was the number of ‘Leave’ voting former Conservatives voting for Sarah. People who don’t necessarily, maybe they regret their vote in June, but most of them probably don’t regret their vote in June, but they do regret Theresa May taking their vote and perverting it into something they never meant it to mean. They believe we should be in the single market even if we are outside the EU,” Farron said.
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who campaigned for Brexit, told Today the by-election had become a vote on Brexit. He said there was “undoubtedly a disgruntlement amongst people who were very strong ‘Remain’ that the majority of the country went against them”.
The Lib Dems were also congratulated by pro-Remain politicians from other parties. Tory Anna Soubry said it showed “common sense is winning” in the debate over what sort of relationship the UK should have with the EU.
Guy Verhofsdat, who is one of the EU’s lead negotiators on Brexit, said Europe was “proud” of the result. The Belgian MEP is the leader of the ALDE group in the European Parliament which includes the Lib Dems.