Willie Rennie has told a leading EU negotiator the UK should be allowed to change its mind on Brexit after the party pulled of a shock by-election victory.
At a meeting with the European Parliament chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader asked for Brexit negotiations to include a ‘break clause’ that would allow the UK to walk away from formal exit process.
The meeting came as the Liberal Democrats celebrated a shock by-election victory in Richmond Park that party leader Tim Farron claimed sent a message of “dissatisfaction with Brexit”.
Lib Dem challenger Sarah Olney swept away Zac Goldsmith’s 23,015 majority to finish 1,872 votes ahead in the south-west London constituency, one of the country’s wealthiest but where a strong Remain vote in July suggests a new dividing line in UK politics.
Ms Olney said her victory was a “shock wave” that would rock Downing Street. She said she had “absolutely” been given a mandate to resist Brexit as an MP, adding that voters had rejected a “Ukip vision” of Britain and the politics of “anger and division”.
“It does look now as if we can have a vote in Parliament that might override the referendum. And I will, obviously, be voting to Remain because that is always what I have believed,” Ms Olney told reporters.
In her victory speech, she told jubilant party activists: “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.”
Yesterday morning she received a personal congratulation on twitter from Mr Verhofstadt, who posted: “Europe is watching & we are proud”. At a gathering of European liberal parties in Warsaw yesterday, Mr Rennie told the former Belgian Prime Minister that the UK should be allowed to change its mind if opinion turns against Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats have pledged to vote against the triggering of Article 50, which starts the formal two-year negotiation process to leave the EU, unless the government agrees to a second referendum on the terms of its Brexit deal.
Mr Rennie said talks with Mr Verhofstadt had been “constructive”, with the pair discussing support for a second Brexit referendum from former Prime Ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair, as well as the Scottish Government’s threat of a second referendum on Scottish independence.
“As a fellow liberal he was delighted by the victory in Richmond Park,” the Scottish Lib Dem leader said. “As you would expect, he observes the developments in UK, including the autumn statement and the Scottish Government’s efforts.
“I told him about the public response to the autumn statement and the financial hit as a result of Brexit that our country is going to have to deal with – lower growth and lower tax receipts.
“I urged him to consider building in a method to stop the Article 50 after it has been triggered if the UK decides it wishes to stay in the EU. I emphasised that support for independence was falling and the support for another Scottish independence referendum was even lower.”
Mr Rennie added: “Guy Verhofstadt is a substantial political figure, as a former Prime Minister and now a leading MEP. I know he will be looking for ways to work constructively with the UK to get the best possible arrangement. It won’t be easy but he is someone who has the ability to make it happen.”
Mr Goldsmith resigned from the Conservative Party and triggered the Richmond Park by-election in protest at the government’s decision to build a third runway at nearby Heathrow Airport.
But the 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. Mr Goldsmith campaigned to leave the EU earlier this year.
Responding to Mr Goldsmith’s defeat, a Conservative Party spokesman said: “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.”
It is the Tory millionaire’s second electoral defeat of the year, having lost the London mayoral election to Sadiq Khan in a bitter contest.
Ms Olney, an accountant who only joined the Lib Dems on the morning after the 2015 general election, polled 20,510 votes to Mr Goldsmith’s 18,638, on a turnout of 41,367, or 53.6%.
The Labour candidate lost his deposit as pro-EU voters flocked to the Lib Dems. Ukip and the Tories both did not field a candidate to give Mr Goldsmith a free run, and the Greens also backed Ms Olney.
The 21.75% swing to the Lib Dems from Mr Goldsmith topped the 19.3% swing they achieved from the Tories in the Witney by-election.
Welcoming the result, the Lib Dems’ Scottish MP Alistair Carmichael said it was “a signal of hope in Scotland”.
“It was not just Scotland that had a strong vote for the UK to remain in the EU in June,” Mr Carmichael said. “Millions of people wanted to remain and now they have a voice wherever they live.”