Lib Dems' by-election win 'the beginning of something special', Tim Farron says
The Liberal Democrats' shock by-election win is a "historic moment for the country", jubilant party leader Tim Farron has claimed.
Lib Dem challenger Sarah Olney bulldozed former Tory Zac Goldsmith out of the Commons, sweeping away his 23,015 majority to finish 1,872 votes ahead of him.
Mr Farron said the result was a verdict on Theresa May's "Ukip-ish" take on Brexit and showed that it was possible for moderates to win.
Lib Dems poured resources into the contest as they successfully switched the focus of the campaign to Brexit in the staunchly Remain west London seat after Mr Goldsmith quit as a Tory MP to force the by-election so he could run as an anti-Heathrow expansion independent.
The result was seized on by th e European Parliament's lead Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, who congratulated Ms Olney and said Europe "is watching".
Tory Remain campaigner Anna Soubry said the result was "sensational", tweeting that MPs " ignore Remainers at their peril & u can forget #Hardbrexit".
The comment prompted a death threat from one Twitter user, who urged "someone jo cox" - a reference to the murdered Labour MP - the former minister.
Mr Farron said: "Sarah is a reminder that populism does not automatically have to win. Those results, Brexit, Trump, the last general election, there was nothing inevitable about them.
"It is entirely possible for moderate progressive people to win through.
"This is the beginning not just of the British people choosing to own what happens next over Brexit, it's also the beginning of Britain finally having a decent, moderate, tolerant opposition to the Tories that fills the space that Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party have left behind.
"This is the beginning of something special."
He added: " This is a historic moment for the country, let's see what happens next."
The result saw Ms Olney poll 20,510 votes to Mr Goldsmith's 18,638, on a turnout of 41,367, or 53.6%. The 21.74% swing to the Lib Dems from Mr Goldsmith topped the 19.3% swing they achieved from the Tories in the Witney byelection.
The Lib Dem victor, who took 49.7% of the vote, said the outcome had sent a "shockwave" through Downing Street and paved the way for Parliament to "override" the EU withdrawal referendum result.
Asked whether the Richmond result might influence Mrs May to soften the Government's stance on Brexit, a Downing Street spokesman said: "We had an election and we had a referendum.
"The referendum result was very clear and the majority of the country expressed an opinion for us to leave the EU.
"The message from the British people was loud and clear on June 23 that there is a desire for us to leave the EU.
"The Government is getting on with delivering that."
Asked whether the result might make the Prime Minister reconsider her decision not to hold a second EU referendum, the spokesman replied: "No."
Ms Olney said the victory gave her a mandate to vote against the Article 50 process for triggering Britain's exit from the European Union.
She said: "That's the commitment I made in my campaign and my by-election victory means I have got a personal mandate from the people of Richmond Park that that's what they want me to do."
Mr Verhofstadt, the president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, tweeted his congratulations to Ms Olney,
"Congratulations @sarahjolney1 and @LibDems. Europe is watching & we are proud #IamEuropean," he said.
But the response provoked anger among Brexit campaigners.
Conservative Steve Baker, a leading Leave campaigner, said: "EU officials should not seek pretexts to hijack UK politics based on half-baked ideas about reality.
"If every MP simply voted with their nearest counting area, Brexit would have a thumping majority in the Commons."
After the result was declared, a clearly downcast Mr Goldsmith said: "This by-election that we have just had was not a political calculation, it was a promise that I made and it was a promise that I kept."
His brother Ben Goldsmith tweeted: " In a Brexit tantrum Richmond has replaced its inspired MP with an utterly dreary Lib Dem (even by Lib Dem standards). Big big shame. Hey ho."
Labour's Christian Wolmar lost his deposit as he trailed a distant third with 1,515 votes, after the Greens backed the Lib Dem candidate, while Ukip stood aside to give Mr Goldsmith a clear run, and the Tories did not field a standard bearer.
Mr Wolmar said voters had disliked Mr Goldsmith's "ghastly, disgusting" bid to be London mayor in which Labour accused him of running a racist campaign against Sadiq Khan.
A Conservative Party spokesman said the result would make no difference to Brexit plans, stating: "This result doesn't change anything. The Government remains committed to leaving the European Union and triggering Article 50 by the end of March next year.
"In addition, we will continue to take decisive action in the national interest to secure the UK's place in the world - supporting a third runway at Heathrow to secure jobs and business opportunities for the next decade and beyond.
"Commiserations to Zac Goldsmith on his defeat. We are sorry that he is no longer in the House of Commons."
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he was "sad" that Mr Goldsmith would no longer be in the Commons, where he "made a remarkable contribution".
Mr Farron said the result meant that voters did not have to "live under that threat of a generation of Tory rule".
He told the Press Association : "This particular Government will surely now be listening. And not so much to its Ukip-ish right wing which seems to have taken over the Tory party in recent months, taking us towards to that damaging hard Brexit that's not on the ballot paper but instead maybe will listen to those very worried Conservative MPs with Liberal Democrats breathing down their necks in dozens of seats around the country who will be saying 'hang about, take us away from this cliff edge'.
"Well if Theresa May does listen to those people and to these voters here and indeed around the country, Britain could still be spared a hugely damaging hard Brexit that was never on the ballot paper."
Mr Farron said it was an "immense moment" for the party and for British politics.
"Now we have proved that we can win I expect around the country now to see real progress, with local elections and in constituencies that we would like to gain at the coming general election," he added.
"This means that we don't have to live under that threat of a generation of Tory rule."
In a typically uncompromising response, Leave.EU branded Mr Farron a "sap" and suggested he needs a "psychiatric evaluation" if he believed the result represented a change in heart among voters over Brexit.
Spokesman Andy Wigmore said: "This changes nothing. If that sap Farron believes one europhile constituency in London changes the wishes of the 63% of constituencies which voted to leave, he needs to be sent for psychiatric evaluation.
" All the public want is for the Government to get on with Brexit."
He added: " The Westminster bubble bed wetters are spinning that this was a 'plebiscite on the Government's Brexit plans'. If they (and MPs) truly believe they have a mandate to derail Brexit, we urge them to put their money where their mouth is and join us in our call for a general election."