Sarah.... The plausible politician
Sarah Olney arrives alone without the posse of minders and political poohbahs who seemed to shadow every step of her campaign to become the MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston. She hurries in out of bitter drizzle and flops into a chair, grateful for a sandwich, eager to explain who she is. We have, I tell her, elected an unknown from a political party whose parliamentary numbers could barely fill a people carrier and we need to know more.
Not just the mantra of anti-Brexit. Olney won that argument for the Liberal Democrats with a stunning overturn of Zac Goldsmith’s five figure majority, a shock by-election victory that mined a revenge vote by a constituency angry at being frogmarched out of the EU.
She inherits a demanding clientele and an exacting to-do list. Opposition to Heathrow expansion which Goldsmith adopted as a personal crusade and which led to the by-election, has not gone away. The demand for new homes in an area of west London where land has Klondike values is turning communities into wealthy ghettos; exiling young, hard working couples.
But it is Olney herself who fascinates. She put a first tentative step on the political ladder just 18 months ago and has emerged as our MP from a door to door guerrilla campaign that reverberated nationally. She is soberly dressed and engaging. While Goldsmith was exotic Olney is understated, yet a keen observer of the absurdities of our river lifestyle, chuckling at stories of the road rage of punters fighting over parking spaces at Waitrose in Sheen.
She was born in 1977 and brought up in Surrey Heath in a climate of deep industrial unrest, public disorder and economic uncertainty. Her father was a teacher, her mother a nurse and both voted Conservative. ‘For them being a Tory was certainly not an expression of right wing ideology. They saw the Tories as stable, safe secure …they were the sort of people whose values they believed in. They did like Mrs Thatcher but they were not crazy about privatisation. It was just that they saw what the alternative was. They really started to associate Labour politics and socialism with anarchism.’
Olney was educated at a Catholic comprehensive school, studied literature at King’s College and worked as a qualified accountant at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. Her faith is quietly held but has been pivotal to who she is. Her belief that everyone is equal before God is core to her belief in a society of equal opportunity. ‘That and the obvious one of compassion for those less well-off and the need to go out in the world and practice that.’
Olney briefly alludes to personal tragedy. She and her town planner husband Ben had their first child Isabelle in 2009. But two years later her baby son, Felix, died shortly after birth; he survived just five hours.
“He never opened his eyes. He was baptised and we had a funeral…after that you know the worst has happened.”
It was devastating but clearly gave Olney perspective and strength. She says: ‘I would go so far as to say that I would not be in the Commons right now if it had not happened.’
Her ‘journey’, to use fashionable parlance, to the Commons was not a long one. The pain of losing her second child was partly ameliorated with the birth of Rufus, now three. But the tragedy also brought a desire to prioritise her goals and a Tory win in the 2015 general election and the end of the coalition with the Lib-Dems gave her a political focus.
‘I told Ben I was joining the North Kingston Lib-Dems. Ben was happy to stay in with the kids. His reaction was: ‘Okay, whatever’. It was an outlet and a chance to get out into the local community more. I had a lot of fun with lovely people.’
The Lib-Dems had been driven out nationally, their MPs slashed from 48 to 8, the party leader Nick Clegg forced to resign but while she had bought into the party at its lowest ebb she was fortunate locally. Olney’s infectious enthusiasm during a successful council by-election saw her chosen to chair the North Kingston Lib-Dems. ‘You are exploited if you look keen,’ she chuckles. But she was more than willing.
The referendum, she admits, was a total shock. She was crocheting into the early hours of June 24 last year, completing a shawl for her goddaughter’s christening, when it dawned on her what she was seeing on the TV.
‘I confess that all along I assumed remain would win,’ she says. ‘But as I knocked on doors the day before, two things struck me. Every single one of them had already been out to vote, so people were really engaged. And on my list of potential remainers quite a few – as much as a quarter – wouldn’t tell me how they voted. That’s a strong sign they voted to leave. I’ve still got my Facebook feed: “Maybe this isn’t going to go the way I thought.’’
She reflects: ‘I was very complacent…I put my hands up to that. But everyone around here were remainers. I didn’t really know what was going on elsewhere…. what others were feeling. It was one of those moments when you say: I’m not sure whether I understand how the world is working any more. I don’t understand how this happened. It has taken a long time to get my head around it.’
Up until the referendum few outside of political wonks had obsessed about Europe. ‘Now everyone has been forced to choose sides and it has become a defining issue, dividing family and friendships and so on.’
Olney’s fierce pro-EU stance and her by-election win on December 1 has brought her unwanted attention. ‘There are some horrible people on Twitter. I try not to look at it but very occasionally I catch sight of it by accident. People put out some pretty vicious stuff…but it’s mostly UKIP people.’
She insists she did not shape her campaign against Goldsmith to exploit the divisions sown by the Brexit vote. This seems slightly disingenuous given Zac’s unapologetic support for leaving the EU in a constituency which voted up to 70 per cent to remain.
‘Some have accused us of making it all about Brexit. But it was the way the campaign evolved rather than us trying to drive a wedge or be opportunistic.’ I look sceptical and she reconsiders: ‘Well, I won’t deny an element of opportunism.’
I cannot but help ask about the interview from hell, given to a radio journalist on the morning after her victory – a mischievous demand to know whether, in line with her demand for a second EU referendum, she would agree to a second vote in Richmond. It ended with a Lib-Dem press officer intervening to end the interview and led to a storm of derision on social media. Olney vows it will never happen again. She was exhausted after 20 hours without sleep and a round of interviews. Standing on Richmond Green she reluctantly agreed to do ‘just one more.’
‘I had run out of steam by that point,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know who I was talking too and couldn’t hear her. Next time I say ‘no’ I will mean ‘no’;
Olney has no illusions about how demanding the locals can be. The toxicity of Brexit has far from disappeared and many who did not give her their vote in the bi-election did so out of loyalty to Goldsmith’s undisputed attention to local issues. ‘I’m dealing with 200 emails a day with no staff,’ says our new MP as she prepares to leave. ‘I’m very aware of Zac’s reputation and I want to match that if not exceed it.’
When Zac Goldsmith’s huge majority was demolished by an unknown candidate, many people wanted to find out more about our new MP Sarah Olney.
Once the dust of the Brexit protest vote had settled most of us realised we knew virtually nothing except that she was married with two children, loved knitting and had spectacularly bailed out of an interview with broadcaster Julia Hartley Brewer leaving her PR handler to take over.
Here, in her first full interview, RiverTribe’s political writer Peter Dobbie, gets to know a woman with uncommon drive and surprising resilience.
Sarah Olney on.....
Heathrow: She blames ‘well-paid lobbyists’ for shaping the government decision to go ahead with a third runway. She says noise and air pollution are the big issues locally with cynics saying it is all about house prices. ‘Weeping for those Barnes millionaires’ is perhaps not the best political hand to play, she says. Instead she wants to persuade MPs elsewhere that the economic case for Heathrow expansion is badly flawed and that expansion at Manchester Airport and other sites makes more sense.
Brexit: She is committed to voting against Article 50, the mechanism to begin departure, a gesture mandated by her by-election victory. She points to ‘frustrations’ at lack of a vision of how departure from the EU will be a benefit. ‘I’m not hearing we will trade with China or Canada and it is only possible because we have left the EU.’
Housing: She unhesitatingly says her priority issue locally is ‘housing, housing, housing’ in the context of community. Time and again she hears from working couples with children whose tenancy has ended and they can no longer afford to live in the constituency where they work.
She finds it ‘distressing’ when developers market local homes in the Far East and is watching keenly the plan to build around 800 homes in Mortlake. In general, she favours a 50-50 mix of private and social housing owned by housing associations, though acknowledges that developers might have other ideas. The development at Mortlake is contentious. Already it has some of the worst traffic congestion in the borough while there is a debate on whether a new school should be primary or secondary and concerns over encroachment onto important historic sites.
Tuition fees: While many in her party opposed fees, Olney – in a constituency with a high number of graduates – argues that the vast majority entering further education are from ‘more privileged’ backgrounds. Lower income families should not to pay taxes to allow ‘privileged people to become even more privileged than they already are,’ she says, pointing out that repayment of fees is tied to levels of earnings.
©RiverTribe Magazine 2017