Heathrow, Brexit and the Richmond by-election. Why I’m grateful for Zac

by Stephen Tall on October 25, 2016

Zac Goldsmith’s resignation as Conservative MP for Richmond Park in protest at his Government’s decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow is, at least on the face of it, good news for the Lib Dems. A Tory-Lib Dem swing equivalent to that achieved in Witney last Thursday (19%) would see the seat, which Jenny Tonge then Susan Kramer held from 1997 to 2010, re-gained.

The Conservatives’ tactically savvy but politically cowardly decision to give Zac a free run as an independent Tory makes the Lib Dem task trickier. And all the candidates will, of course, be against the expansion of Heathrow. Which means Brexit will be to the fore, as Zac was a Leaver in a constituency which voted solidly to Remain.

On both issues I find myself in something of a quandary.

I’m not against airport expansion, so long as it can be done within our internationally agreed carbon limits. My gut instinct is to favour Gatwick (to create greater competition in London) while allowing more expansion at regional airports. Heathrow already sucks enough economic growth into London and the south-east. But I’d probably favour Heathrow expansion over no expansion at all.

And on Brexit, while I think the Tories’ apparent decision to hurtle towards a hard Brexit outside the single market is bonkers, I’m not much convinced the Lib Dem pledge to offer a second referendum on the negotiated terms is anything other than a tokenistic feel-good policy designed simply to attract a portion of the 48% Remain voters (an understandable enough ambition for a party still polling in single digits, I accept).

So, on the two big issues that will dominate this by-election, I find myself at least partially at odds with my party.

But as the Tory-in-all-but-name candidate will be Zac Goldsmith — whose borderline racist campaign to be London mayor destroyed his reputation for being a supposedly small-l-liberal moderniser — any lily-livered qualms are quickly assuaged.