Does anyone know what Jimmy wants?

Political explanation runs into the sand. Perhaps the answer lies deep in Sir James Goldsmith's psyche
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It isn't hard to see why the less robust Tories are just a little jittery about Sir James Goldsmith at the moment. This Saturday, an extraordinary and distinctly media-friendly event takes place in Brighton: the national conference of a brand new bespoke party led by a billionaire with pounds 20m to spend on the general election and a compellingly single-minded approach to politics.

It's easy, of course, to dismiss the band of socialites, individualist businessmen and eccentrics - glamorous and less glamorous - who will gather tomorrow night in Brighton for the Referendum Party conference. The British electorate doesn't like single-issue politics. His party is scarcely a blip in the opinion polls. Peter De Savary, Geoffrey Boycott, and John Aspinall aren't really credible as the vanguard of a new political movement. But let's leave the celeb spotting to The Tatler for just a moment. The really interesting question about this weekend's jamboree is whether it provides an answer to the most intriguing question: what does Jimmy want?

Frightened politicians for a start. It would take a column far longer than this to list the many extreme differences between Sir James Goldsmith and Lloyd George. But they have one feature in common. The 1918 general election is commonly called "the coupon election", because the Liberal and Conservative coalition candidates had to be certified as satisfactory supporters of the wartime Prime Minister before being sure they would be unopposed. The diehard Asquithian Liberals either refused or were refused a coupon and only a minority were elected. The Liberals were smashed as a consequence, but that's another matter.

Sir James is now operating his own version of a coupon election, and with even more zeal than the coalition leaders did in 1918. In an interview with BBC TV's On the Record last Sunday, Sir James chillingly explained how every MP's record was examined for whether he had voted for a referendum: "Whenever they have done so they get a certain number of points; whenever they've failed to vote, voted against or abstained they get no points."

It is obvious therefore that the 78 MPs who voted for Bill Cash's Referendum Bill earlier in the year, some of them directly because of fear of Sir James, have a good chance of high points. But what of Sir Michael Spicer, a leading Maastricht rebel who voted in favour of a referendum on the treaty? Sir James was uncompromising: "Michael Spicer's history is one of moving with the wind ... I do not believe in what he says and his voting record is not impeccable." Never mind that Sir James's own views have evolved a bit since he proposed in the French edition of The Trap, "central powers" for Brussels over "diplomacy and defence", the rigour with which Sir James is awarding his metaphorical coupons has something of the flavour of a mid-century Trotskyite sect.

But being scary can't be the whole answer. In theory Sir James just wants a Euro-referendum. But a referendum on what exactly? The exact details, it seems, would be worked out by a Speaker's Conference. But to make Sir James pack up his tent, it would have to pose four options: 1) staying in the EU as it is; 2) returning to a pre-Maastricht EU; 3) being in an EU which was just an Efta-style free-trade area; or 4) getting out of the EU altogether. Two and Three look startlingly similar to Four, since it's surely impossible to imagine the rest of the EU opting for either just because the British electorate was in favour of them. And yet, as I understand it, Sir James would not be satisfied with a simple referendum on whether Britain should be in or out of the EU.

The campaign line, of course, is that Sir James's own political agenda has nothing to do with the Referendum Party. Yes, he's anti-EU (now) but withdrawal is not a party objective. Nor is the one goal which can be ascribed to Sir James that distinguishes him from every leading British politician, including, notably Lady Thatcher: Sir James opposes global free trade. He's long been a champion of European protectionism against the US and the Far East. Now it is possible that Sir James might attract some militant young Tories anxious to revisit the anti-American protectionist tendencies of previous generations on the right. But it's almost impossible to understand how his long-held enthusiasm for European tariff barriers squares with his desire to dismantle the EU as we know it. Indeed the "what does he want" question is now so confusing that it's almost easier to fall back on the psychological explanation offered by his biographer Geoffrey Wansell. According to Wansell, Goldsmith's greatest regret was that his "unconventional personal life" had prevented him entering politics. A regret all the keener because his MP father, Frank, lost his seat in the wave of anti-German feeling at the end of the First World War.

This week his party is claiming a fresh momentum. Ten thousand are said to have registered as "active supporters" after the media blitz of the past few days. Yesterday Sir James challenged Jacques Santer to a TV debate after the European Commission complained about the content of his newspaper advertisements. A spokesman for Sir James denied persistent reports from Vienna that he is planning to form a grouping in the European Parliament with Jorg Haider. But even supposing such momentum could be sustained, I doubt if the Referendum Party will have remotely as much impact in the ballot box as it will have on TV screens.

Last week Sir James publicly "vomited" over the present generation of professional politicians, their evasions and their prevarications. But for all their low opinions of the messy accommodations of party politics the electors are more grimly realistic about the alternatives than he is.