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Green socialite gambles on a blue victory

Multi-millionaire environmentalist Zac Goldsmith is fighting to snatch Richmond Park from Liberal Susan Kramer. Janet Street-Porter on a contest where the political is getting personal

I spent a lot of time in Richmond Park as a kid. Growing up in working-class Fulham, we played games in the street and I nearly got my face mashed up by a motorbike. For some fresh air, we'd drive over Putney Bridge towards Kingston, through Robin Hood Gate and into the wide, green expanse where we'd unpack our picnic at Pen Ponds.

Mum would wander off to admire the deer, while I would catch tadpoles in jam jars. Back in Fulham, I'd watch them sprout tiny legs and webbed feet, and then one day they would have hopped off, presumably to die in a neighbour's backyard.

I don't know whether to mention this when I turn up in Richmond to meet Zac Goldsmith, the would-be Tory MP. Does it show that deep down I was interested in the environment from an early age? Or perhaps he'll rebuke me as an eco-vandal, plundering harmless amphibians for my own sport. We have a watery coffee in Norbiton, one of the few bits of this wealthy constituency that has terraced houses which look like they need a bit of money spent sprucing them up. Even though it's relatively early and he's on a non-stop round of coffee mornings, leafleting and canvassing, Zac's eyes burn with passion. I'm a bit miffed that he's wearing a dreary fleece, brown jeans and quilted jacket. When we last met, at an ethical awards ceremony, he was in a beautifully cut expensive suit and white shirt, and he sneaked off to go gambling. He made a speech that night – without notes. The audience was captivated. He has star quality, even if a lot of what he said was a bit waffly. There's no denying Zac knows his subject, and his environmental credentials are impeccable.

I can't understand why someone with about £200m in trust (in the Cayman Islands) wants to be an MP. But this bloke is like an old-fashioned hippie – he spouts about "wanting to change things" – and you kind of believe him. And rich people, let's be honest, generally get what they want. Choice is very much a middle-class concept. And a lot of environmental choices are ones that poorer people can't afford. You have to have a home with a roof before you can decide on solar panels and insulation. You need a balcony before you can grow vegetables. You need to have enough clothes and furniture before you can decide not to be a rabid consumer any more. Zac joined the Tories in 2005, advised them on green issues, and quickly got selected as a candidate. He was born in Richmond, and went to school here – but not the sort of schools I attended in nearby Fulham. You'd think that this constituency would be a natural for the Tories as it's one of the richest in the country, with a beautiful stretch of the Thames, posh houses aplenty and good shopping in Richmond and Kingston. Barnes is very desirable, with tea shops, nice pubs and textile galleries selling expensive quilts. It's where rich media folk graduate to after Chiswick.

But this leafy part of south-west London, perhaps because it's home to a lot of contrary professionals, is a Lib Dem stronghold. The three local MPs are Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Susan Kramer, who won Richmond in 2005. The Lib Dems have been quick to slag Zac off as a pretty rich boy who's pouring thousands into his campaign, but Susan is well-off, too. She attended swanky St Paul's Girls' School, was president of the Oxford Union (has admitted smoking dope at uni) and was vice-president of a leading investment bank before going into business with her husband. She joined the Lib Dems at the age of 44 (she's 59 now). She is said by her detractors to be humourless, cold, unfriendly and abrasive. It would take only a 3.7 per cent swing for Zac to unseat Susan, but she's being helped by a Cleggtastic surge in the Lib Dems' profile. Both candidates admit things are too close to call.

Some sections of the media have dubbed this the battle between "beauty and the beast". Which seems a bit unfair. Both candidates are highly driven, and convinced there's only one way to do things – their way. Packaged differently, they're more alike than you'd first think. Susan Kramer campaigned vociferously against the expansion of Heathrow, a key issue in this area. The Lib Dem council has a strict recycling policy and the streets are lined with different coloured bins. Do I think voters would stick a cross next to the most visually pleasing candidate? Surely not. But a poll tells me 9 per cent of the electorate are voting based on their opinion of the leaders' wives. Anything is possible.

Back in Norbiton I've turned my tape recorder on and Zac is in full rant about politics being a filthy business, the Lib Dems being despicable, Susan Kramer being a liar. He says he's spent about £15,000 on this campaign since 1 January (Susan later says the figure is more than a couple of hundred thousand). For the next hour he smokes skinny roll-ups and spews out stories of scaremongering and dirty dealing by the Lib Dems: he says 20 of his posters have been torn down at night in the past 10 days; that Lib Dem activists have tried to infiltrate his office. Gosh, this sounds more bare knuckle than Prime Minister's Questions. I can't quite believe such skulduggery is happening in leafy, lovely Richmond.

Zac had told me before that he wouldn't take his salary if he was elected, but now he's backtracking fast – maybe that rubs in the fact he's so very rich. "Now we're in an election campaign, I don't want to talk about things like that .... I don't want to make a pledge because, if I do, it looks like I am desperately trying to appeal to people ... let's face it, I'm not getting involved in politics for the dosh." But what about the fact he was outed as a "non dom" last year?

"It was complete nonsense from start to finish. I've always been a British resident and I've always paid tax here, and I get infuriated when people accuse me of not paying it. It was a Lib Dem smear – they are running an incredibly effective attack unit and they keep using this to scare people off me. They are brilliant at the 'game' of politics but they are totally unethical. The Lib Dems put out a letter saying I was trying to buy the vote here. I've had it out with Susan Kramer: at the time the letter was written she'd put more of her own money (£70,000) into the campaign than I'd put into mine. Altogether I must have put about £35,000 of my own cash into my campaign – and I'd like to see the way political parties are funded radically reformed.

"If there is such a thing as ethics in politics – and I'm not sure that there is – then sending out a letter at huge expense saying I'm buying the vote, to 60,000 people, when there's no truth in it, stinks." Why doesn't he sue her for libel? "What's the point?" Zac smiles that dazzling smile, but he does look a bit beaten down by it all. If politics is so disgusting and dirty, why is he getting involved? "Janet, it's not if ... politics is disgusting, it is so disgusting and dirty. I am up against a politician for whom winning is everything. It's not about policies. It's just about winning by any means. For me, politics means a way of changing things for the better. Susan Kramer is perfectly pleasant, if a bit robotic – she'll give you a template answer to every question. She doesn't strike me as a bad person. But her campaign is utterly disgraceful on every level, which is why, when I debate with her in front of an audience, she comes out worse, because she simply is not telling the truth and I can prove that. What's the point of stuffing Parliament with people like her? You get loads of committees, loads of photo opportunities, but nothing really changes. If you rely on Lib Dem literature to inform how you vote, then it's a load of lies."

He's sticking to his pledge that, if elected, he'll resign should the Tories renege on their promise to halt the expansion of Heathrow: "There are lots of bigger issues facing the country – like the economy – but it's a big issue around here." But surely there's not a lot of difference between the parties, and voters are cynical about all of them?

"I agree, I've not been hugely impressed by what's happened in politics over the last few years, we've been let down badly on so many levels. But if things were perfect then I wouldn't get involved. There's no rule requiring people to have a lobotomy to enter Parliament. I had an option to take a safe seat, but I turned it down. I wanted to fight here, where I was born, and in an area I know well.

"Mega-government doesn't work; we need more local decision-making. Councils and local people should be in charge of education, policing policy, planning strategy. We need less interference."

Even if Zac wins, there's every chance the council will still be controlled by Lib Dems. And surely a lot of Lib Dem policies are quite like his own? "Some are – but I am telling the truth and they're not. It's as simple as that. She's pretending the hospital is going to have its A&E closed. It's rubbish. She says I won't join her campaign to save the hospital. Well, the hospital is not under threat. This goes to the heart of democracy, it's as simple as that. The Lib Dem campaign in Richmond is funded by a convicted fraudster who's a non dom. People aren't interested in that crap – they deserve to be told the truth."

The café owner tells me most of the young people who have registered to vote are supporting the Lib Dems, impressed by Nick Clegg rather than Susan Kramer. Outside, in a recycling bin, I spot one of Zac's posters, I hope that's not an omen. A young mum tells me her husband's a Tory, but she's undecided, wavering between the Lib Dems and Zac.

I track Susan Kramer down in Barnes, outside the Orange Pekoe café, scene of one of their bitter debates. A bystander reported that they both spoke at once and ignored each other. In a weird patterned frock and with dishevelled hair, Susan clearly doesn't give a stuff about her appearance. When we grab a quick drink in the local pub, she's utterly focused in her dismissal of Zac. She rebuts his accusations with the precision of a neuro surgeon.

"I am not interested in the personal. I'm focused on issues, that's what the public want to hear about." At least she must admit Zac has been a local resident for all his 35 years? "I've lived here 17 years and I started fighting the expansion of Heathrow the minute I arrived. I don't believe the Tories will be able to resist pressure from big business if they get elected. They are bound to renege on their pledge to stop the third runway."

What about the letter accusing Zac of buying votes? "Vince Cable has been campaigning for a long time to change the way parties are funded. He sent out a letter ..." Talk about passing the buck. "Our party is fighting an election on a fraction of the budget of the other two parties ... there's a danger it's the battle of the big spenders." So how much of her own money has she spent? "Around £50,000 over the past five years, for the local, EU, GLA and national elections." As for Zac's assertion that he's put in £35,000, she laughs. "Look up the figures on the Electoral Commission website – I reckon it's nearer £200,000."

And what about accusations that she's scaremongering with her campaign to "save" Kingston hospital? After all, a statement refuting the Lib Dems' claims has been put out by the NHS. "I don't accept that. We have seen secret documents which lead us to believe that – given the limited options in the South-east – the A&E department at the hospital is under real threat of closure. We've talked to key executives in the NHS and they agree the NHS has to make cuts somewhere, and they don't have a lot of choice. This is an issue which should be above party politics – it's disgusting that the Tories and Labour won't support us."

A recent study has found that London is the most unequal city in the world, with the richest 10 per cent worth more that 273 times the poorest. Their net worth averages a whopping £933,563 per person versus a pitiful £3,420 at the bottom. In Richmond, a wealthy borough with not a single Labour councillor, two extremely well-off candidates are engaged in a bitter dispute which hardly seems to engage with the issues faced by less well-off Londoners. Zac has high ideals, but could he cope with the horse-trading that seems inevitable if there's a hung parliament? The Lib Dems are benefiting from Clegg's TV charisma, but don't ask me what the party stands for. Their policies seem a bit like the patchwork quilt in the window of the textile gallery near my parked car, something eye-catching to appeal to everyone.