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Why my by-election victory can be rallying call for a European future

(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Richmond Park must be an inspiration for those wanting an open, tolerant Britain – and we must shout loud enough to wake the government from its sleepwalk towards a trade war

All the noise had come from the Hard Brexiteers: ‘we want an ugly, messy divorce,’ the Brexiteers chanted ‘and we want it yesterday’.

Sure, the Liberal Democrats had been arguing that despite the referendum it was essential that we stay in the single market and give the people a say on the deal the government eventually negotiates. But with a media playing homage to Nigel Farage, it was challenging for Britain’s only nationwide pro-European party to be heard.

That all changed with the Richmond Park and North Kingston by-election. By over-turning a 23,000 majority against a Euro-sceptic MP, the Liberal Democrats have changed the national debate. I was very clear during the campaign that I would vote against Article 50; there was no hiding my pro-European ideals, no fudge, no prevarication. And we won, scoring one of the most spectacular by-election gains in Lib Dem history.

Suddenly 40 pro-European Conservative MPs – largely cowed since the referendum by the Brexit absolutists – found their voice. With the votes barely counted, they reportedly jammed the Downing Street switchboard demanding Theresa May soften her Hard Brexit rhetoric. I am sure much of this was high principle, but the cry of our Leader Tim Farron to Tory MPs might have concentrated minds: ‘We are coming for you’.

On the Richmond Park swing, the Lib Dems would gain over 150 Tory seats. No wonder all those anti-European Tory MPs in Remain constituencies are suddenly remembering the value of Europe.

For the public get what the House of Commons has missed until now: a recent poll showed that 90% of the British people want to stay in the single market, while senior voices within the hopelessly divided Conservative Brexit government have been arguing that we can somehow do without our partners across the Channel.

People who see through the 1950s nationalism and nostalgia of Conservative Brexiteers know it would be economically suicidal to haul Britain out of the world’s most lucrative market. Every tariff against British goods, every trade framework that we will have no power to influence, will be a hammer blow to British jobs. Theresa May seems to be sleep-walking towards a trade war – and it will be British citizens, not the global elite, who will pay the highest price.

Over 5,000 people in Richmond Park and North Kingston work in the City, and not all as the wealthy merchant bankers of cliché, but in support jobs and related professions. What happens to the City if Britain loses passporting rights for financial services?

Another 8,000 local people work in the public sector, who will see their modest pay packets nibbled away at by Brexit inflation. Think of the jobs, the livelihoods, the families depending on us being able to trade freely.

If it were a Labour government purposefully embarking on a course that would leave a £220bn Brexit black hole in the public finances, the outcry would be deafening; but without a functioning Official Opposition, the Tories have got away with it.

But that was before Richmond Park.

Theresa May should now be aware that she is under pressure, not just from her Brexit right, but from the outward-looking, economically-sane centre-ground. Labour might not be providing any opposition – how, for instance, can Jeremy Corbyn defend our membership of the single market when he doesn’t believe in markets? – but Tory MPs know that the Lib Dems are now back as a serious electoral force.

In the wake of the referendum, we increased our membership by nearly 20,000 and won more than 20 council seats, but there is nothing like a by-election win to focus political minds.

Yet the real significance of the win is, I hope, greater than simply confirming the revival of a political party. If May is astute, she will use the defeat of her favoured candidate Zac Goldsmith as an excuse to kill off Hard Brexit. After all, it would be straight out of the David Cameron songbook: blame the Lib Dems for something the PM wants to do anyway. In Richmond Park, for instance, the anti-immigration rhetoric has not only caused economic fear, it has caused real hurt among dear friends. Now, surely, is the time for more thoughtful ministers to point out how British society has benefitted from immigration.

So far, the signs are mixed. Some ministers are making unaccustomed warm noises about the single market. Amazingly, almost six months on, the government has even admitted it would be quite handy if it had a Brexit plan. But May’s tawdry, banal, meaningless call for a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ is not encouraging.

The government doesn’t seem to grasp a simple point: that if it seeks help and flexibility from our European friends for a bespoke deal, insulting them is probably not the most effective strategy.

Ministers give every impression of treating all EU negotiations as transactional. They aren’t: European leaders believe passionately that they have built a peaceful haven of co-operation from the ashes of the Second World War. As Europe grapples with unprecedented challenges, their eyes are on bigger game than car sales.

Europe faces the largest movement of people the world has known; the threat of a populist right spreading intolerance and even hate; a posturing Russia, a rising China; low global economic growth and high debt; climate change; and the urgent need to re-train our work-forces for a post-industrial future. With such shared challenges, European leaders are looking for partners who will say ‘let us solve these problems together’. In contrast, May’s approach seems to be: ‘what can we get out of you?’ No wonder her negotiations have run into the Normandy sands.

I take my election as a mandate to remind the government at every opportunity that 48% of Britons voted to Remain, and that many of the 52% who voted to Leave still want Britain to play a constructive role in Europe – and in the single market. They also, on both sides, demand a final say on the deal. I will also remind ministers that those persuaded into the Leave camp liked the promise of £350m a week extra for the NHS. Instead they have seen cash-starved hospitals cutting operations and the prospect of ministers wasting billions on hiring 30,000 Brexit consultants; some Brexit saving.

Now the Lib Dems are back at the centre of debate I hope our victory in Richmond Park will be a rallying call for those who want Britain to remain open, tolerant and united. Richmond shows that Britain can still have a European future, if we fight for it.

Sarah Olney is the Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park

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