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Sarah Olney MP talks Queuing, Climate and Kwarteng with Roar News

Comment Editor Fintan Hogan sits down with King’s alumni, Member of Parliament and Liberal Democrat spokesperson Sarah Olney.

King’s College London (KCL) prides itself on many of its alumni. From Nightingale to Tutu, their faces decorate windows and walls all over King’s campuses. But these are old hands in the alumni game. A new generation have graduated and are the changemakers of today. This short series of interviews aims to provide an insight into former students who have taken the short trip from Strand to SW1.

Every interviewee deserves an individual article, as each has a valuable political insight to share. After the staggered releases, we will compile one further piece which summarises the value that former students have taken from King’s in particular. Each has been kind enough to offer introspection, advice and guidance for our current students. Read carefully – these are powerful, popular and intelligent public figures who have stood in your shoes. We are grateful to each participant for their time.

Background

Roar’s first interview is with Sarah Olney, Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park from 2016 to 2017 and from 2019 onwards. She graduated from KCL with an undergraduate degree in English Literature and Language in 1998.

Moving from bookshop to bookkeeper, Olney left her role as an accountant to run for office in the Richmond Park by-election of 2016. She claimed the seat from incumbent Zac Goldsmith after he resigned from the Conservative Party, winning around 20,000 more votes for the Lib Dems than they had received only two years previously.

She lost her seat in the 2017 general election but won it back in 2019 with an improved majority, despite a national swing towards the Conservative party and the poor performance of Lib Dem candidates at large. She is now the party spokesperson for Business, Energy and Trade.

The Queue

After agreeing to an interview, I bumped into Sarah on the South Bank while she was marshalling the 24-hour queue to see the Queen lying-in-state. Somewhat flustered, I introduced myself as the person who she had agreed to be interviewed by in a few weeks. Roar might not be top of the list for a politician regularly interviewed on BBC News and she didn’t seem to remember my emails, but styled it out like the consummate politician. At the very least, I thought, I have a line to start our interview with – even if the line is about my own embarrassment.

When Sarah joins the Zoom interview on Monday October 10, she dutifully recalls my faux pas. Tongue in cheek, she tells me that her interview with Roar is “equally as important” as her recent BBC appearance. I threaten to quote her on that, and she laughs. The BBC are on notice.

Political achievement

Sarah’s political career is still in its infancy. She describes herself as an “outsider to politics”, who took no interest in partisanship before she signed up to run for office in 2016. She reports no history of activism, only a casual interest in current affairs. Even after her by-election victory, she compared her situation to the first day of school when you join the middle of the term. Since then, she has grown into the role and is now a prominent member of the Lib Dem communications team. On Wednesday October 12 she challenged Liz Truss during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) about the expansion of Heathrow.

Her self-professed greatest achievement has been winning the two elections for Richmond Park, particularly considering their context. Shortly after the Brexit referendum and Trump’s presidential success, she expressly stood for liberal values. “A lone voice standing against that,” she believes that her election sent a clear message that Britain still believed in a more tolerant kind of politics. During a turbulent year, this was a “glimmer of hope” which she took heart from.

It’s clear that she believes that both Brexit and Boris Johnson’s election in 2019 have been “heavily misinterpreted”. These were particular moments in time which cannot be assumed to always and forever represent the views of the public. This underpinned her argument in favour of a second referendum before Britain formally left the European Union. For her, the assumption of fixed public opinion has had real, negative consequences in recent years: “I don’t think that [post-Brexit Conservative policies] are in the interests of the country or in the wishes of the British people”.

Hope for the future

Already, the Lib Dems are on an election-footing. Truss’ political capital is low and falling further, and Sarah candidly admits that the “focus is very much on the next general election – and we hope to make gains”. With the next general election not scheduled until May 2024, her party maybe thinks (or hopes) that the Conservatives will call one sooner. That, or we can expect 18 months of quasi-campaigning from all sides, something that Liz Truss has already resorted to on Twitter.

She hopes that they’ll win enough seats to become “an influential voice in the next Parliament”. I coyly ask if this might implicitly be as a (Labour) coalition member. She considers it a possibility, but sees so much fluctuation in the polling that it is “impossible to make firm predictions about what is going to happen”.

Ms Olney has been somewhat supportive of co-operative electioneering in the past. When I ask her if she would be in favour of some sort of arrangement with Labour at the next election, she says that she might be, “to a small degree”.

“I think what doesn’t work… is standing down candidates” she told me, “everyone should have the opportunity to express their view by voting for the candidate that best expresses their view”. She unconditionally supports all parties standing candidates in all constituencies, and so would not approve of an explicit Lib-Lab electoral pact. This makes sense, as the 2019 election saw Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) all face allegations a ‘super-coalition’ grouping, allegedly to depose the Conservatives. Sarah, and the Lib Dems, will be keen to avoid this easy line of attack at the next general election, which would be “damaging to all parties”.

However, she implies that since “all parties have got limited resources… they will be focusing their efforts on the seats that they can win”. In most cases, either Labour or the Lib Dems are better positioned to take a seat from the Tories, and where they both contest the seat actively, the centre and left-wing vote tends to be split between them.

Ms Olney states that “the sharp turn in the opinion polls over the last couple of weeks has been very much a kind of anti-Tory move – so it’s in both parties’ interest to exploit that kind of anti-Tory mood, so we’ll be looking to not get in each other’s way”. Where Labour are better positioned to beat out a Conservative, we should expect to see little organised Lib Dem resistance at the next election then.

Yet there is no suggestion of a formal alliance either. It’s “reasonably obvious” which seats each party should push for, she tells me. Don’t expect to see Ed Davey and Kier Starmer hand-in-hand any time soon.

Department for Climate Change

One of Sarah’s centrepiece policies is the reformation of a Department for Climate Change, which the Conservatives scrapped in 2015. She lambasts the current approach as “disintegrated across different departments” and advocates putting “a minister sitting in the middle pushing that forward”. This role, she suggests, should be as important as the Treasury. While the Chancellor budgets for each department, perhaps the Secretary of Climate Change should be doing the carbon accounting.

She praises Alok Sharma’s presidency of the 2022 Conference of the Parties, saying that she’s “got some time for him” and that he’s “grasped what’s required”. Government needs “an Alok Sharma with a more central role”. She hopes that this would stop individual departments obfuscating their own duty to cut carbon and green the economy.

Truss

Finally, I ask Sarah if she has a recommendation for Liz Truss. Because the Truss government, at the moment, needs all the help it can get.

“Listen to good advice. Listen to people who know what they’re talking about, listen to people who have some experience of the real world, listen to people who have experience in implementing policy, know the pitfalls, understand what it is that you’re trying to achieve but for goodness sake listen to people who have real world experience.”

She characterises the current government as one which has “taken control of the levers” without any real experience. “She and Kwasi Kwarteng have implemented a load of policies that they’ve thought about, they’ve written a load of papers about, they’ve had intellectual discussions about but they’ve had no contact with the real world – either how well the policies are going to be received or how easy they are to implement. The mini-budget has just been such a disaster.”

There have been “massive errors” in their handling of economic policy so far. She urges Liz Truss to heed to experts, because “we would all have been better off, let’s face it.”

There is no judgement about ideology in Sarah’s remarks. Her advice is pragmatic. Whatever the government wants to do, she hopes that they learn to implement it as painlessly as possible. This fair-minded approach characterises Ms Olney, who is polite and considerate throughout. In all of her answers, she exemplified the tolerant and open-minded attitude to politics that she championed at her very first election victory in 2016. Keep an eye on this King’s alumni – Liberal Democrat Leader Olney is far from inconceivable.

Roar thanks MP Sarah Olney and communications officer Theo Goodliffe for their time.

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