May’s London Election Defeat Exposes Brexit Gulf Dividing U.K.

(Bloomberg) -- The curse of 2016 has struck again: an establishment politician called a vote he assumed he’d easily win -- and received a rude shock from the electorate. Yet this time, it wasn’t populism that won.

Sarah Olney’s victory over Zac Goldsmith, the son of a billionaire and former member of the ruling Conservative Party, was a triumph for a liberal, pro-European campaign that promised to fight for openness and tolerance and battle to stop Brexit at every opportunity.

May’s London Election Defeat Exposes Brexit Gulf Dividing U.K.

Sarah Olney

Photographer: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

“Today we have said ‘No’,” Olney, the newly elected Liberal Democrat member of Parliament for Richmond Park, said in her victory speech in the early hours of Friday. “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’s triumph is the first success at the ballot box for the campaign to stop Prime Minister Theresa May’s drive to take Britain out of the European Union and a boost for those who hope to overturn the result of the U.K.-wide referendum. The question is whether this one result will make any difference.

U.K. Divided

The vote may say more about the division between the capital and the rest of the country than about any change in the national mood on Brexit. Richmond Park is an electoral district in an affluent part of London in which more than seven-in-10 voters backed staying in the EU in June’s referendum. It is 120 miles (190 kilometers) from Boston, in Lincolnshire, England, where 76 percent voted for Brexit, but it might as well be a different country.

“This result doesn’t change anything,” May’s Conservative Party said in a statement. “The government remains committed to leaving the European Union and triggering Article 50 by the end of March next year.”

Yet there are practical -- and political -- implications flowing from the result that May will have to consider.

First, May took over as premier with a small majority for her Conservatives in the House of Commons; now it is even smaller. The threat of losing votes in Parliament if a handful of her own lawmakers rebel will have made a cautious prime minister even more wary of taking risks. May has already said she does not want to call an early general election and this defeat for her former Conservative colleague will surely harden her resolve against going to the polls.

Softer Brexit?

May’s diminished power base in Parliament also raises the stakes in her legal battle with Brexit campaigners over whether she alone has the authority to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and launch Britain towards the exit door of Europe. The U.K.’s Supreme Court will begin hearing the case next week as May’s team seeks to overturn a ruling from judges who said she must give lawmakers a vote on Article 50.

Politically, the Liberal Democrats’ success in fighting the Richmond Park election on the single issue of Brexit reopens a question that the June referendum was meant to settle. Pro-Europeans will now seek to turn every vote they can into a mini-referendum on Brexit, or at least on whether the country wants a hard Brexit or to stay close to the EU.

There are signs that May and her team are already pausing to consider how hard they want their Brexit to be. In the last 24 hours, Brexit Secretary David Davis suggested the U.K. could be willing to continue paying the EU to keep access to the single market and said any crackdown on immigration won’t be done in a way that hurts the economy. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson -- who led the Vote Leave referendum campaign -- insisted Britain was not “slamming the door” to Europe, while Trade Minister Greg Hands suggested the government could seek to stay in the customs union. The result in Richmond Park is another nudge for the government toward Europe rather than away from it.

In a sign that the split between supporters of hard and soft Brexit has now eclipsed old party loyalties, Anna Soubry, a pro-EU Conservative minister until July, cheered the “sensational” Liberal Democrat victory in a post on Twitter. “Politicians ignore #Remainers at their peril & u can forget #Hardbrexit,” she said.