The first hustings last night at Duke Street Church was a lively affair with some 200 people attending. The organisers, HACAN, the anti Heathrow expansion campaign, wanted to restrict questions to aviation issues but inevitably many others were raised.
Zac Goldsmith claimed that the by-election should be considered as a referendum on the Heathrow issue but this is a nonsense.
First of all, virtually all Richmond residents are already opposed to expansion, as was revealed in a referendum three years ago. Secondly, this is a by-election to elect a member of parliament, and it is not up to one of the candidates to define what are the issues.
Indeed, as I wrote yesterday, the big issue on the doorstep is Brexit and inevitably that came up as an issue. I pointed out the link between the vote for Brexit and the decision over Heathrow given that it was imperative for Theresa May to trot out the hoary old line that ‘Britain was open for business’. Zac Goldsmith was clearly uncomfortable discussing the issue and claimed he had not campaigned for Leave, though admitting he had voted for it.
His claim that he would be the best MP to continue the fight against Heathrow expansion also looked weak. As I mentioned in my speech, he would either simply rejoin the Tories – which he denied he would do – or he would be a lone ‘Independent’ with no influence. Goldsmith’s worst moment was when he said he would be re-elected to the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee which is by no means certain or even likely. As a one man band in Parliament, with no party machine behind him, he could find the Commons a rather lonely place.
Goldsmith has said he resigned from the Tory party as well as from his seat, but that is rather belied by the fact that so many of those canvassing for him are Conservatives. Most controversially, Jacob Rees-Mogg has even been to Richmond knocking on doors for the playboy politician, and Goldsmith found it difficult to defend the fact that someone so adamantly in favour of Heathrow was supporting him.
As for the Liberals, Sarah Olney struggled when Goldsmith read out part of a blog she had written praising Theresa May, which has now been deleted. She also came under fire when it emerged that the Coalition government, of which the LibDems were part, could have ensured that the Heathrow option was not considered by the Airports Commission. Instead, its terms of reference were signed off by LibDem Cabinet members such as Vince Cable.
I was the only candidate who stressed that airport expansion seems incompatible with our climate change obligations and that the Heathrow option is likely to be undeliverable given the cost and the expected requirement on public money to improve transport links. The fight continues.
Given that the positions on Heathrow were well established, I suspect that the second HACAN hustings, at Tiffin School in Kingston on November 23rd 7pm will cover wider territory.