Zac Goldsmith: The Tory nice guy fighting a nasty mayoral campaign

Some party critics fear the maverick backbencher’s late burst might not quite be enough to get him over the finishing line

Andrew Grice
Tuesday 03 May 2016 22:40
Caught in the headlights: Goldsmith lacks the confidence of the current mayor
Caught in the headlights: Goldsmith lacks the confidence of the current mayor

Zac Goldsmith insists that it is a shame that the media is not focusing more on “London issues” – housing, transport, the environment and crime – and is concentrating on the views of his Labour opponent Sadiq Khan. But the Conservative hoping to succeed Boris Johnson as Mayor of London is being disingenuous: in recent weeks, his campaign has upped several gears to spotlight Khan’s alleged links with Islamic extremists.

For Goldsmith, the Tories are raising legitimate questions about Khan’s judgement. To Labour, it looks like the Tories are playing the race card by drawing attention to Khan’s Muslim faith at every opportunity. Indeed, Tory officials report a “very positive response” from voters in the Hindu community, who are being targeted with literature saying Khan would not keep the city safe. In a newspaper article at the weekend, Goldsmith asked: “Are we really going to hand the world's greatest city to a Labour Party that thinks terrorists are its friends?”

The widespread impression is that the mild-mannered, softly-spoken Goldsmith, one of the nice guys in Tory land, would have been unlikely to launch such a nasty campaign if left to his own devices. The hard line seems to have been dictated by the firm of strategists advising on Goldsmith’s campaign – Crosby, Textor, Fullbrook. Although the Tories insist that Lynton Crosby, the Australian who helped David Cameron to his general election victory a year ago, plays no direct part in the mayoral campaign, his business partner Mark Fullbrook is Goldsmith’s campaign director and the Tories’ recent blitz bears all Crosby’s trademarks.

Some of the attacks on Khan appeared to backfire: it emerged that Goldsmith had also met Suliman Gani, a controversial imam, that Gani had been invited to events by the Conservatives and campaigned for them at last year’s election.

Friends say Goldsmith can win, as he would have been criticised if he had not injected more life into the race on the final lap. One minister admitted: “He has not exactly set the world on fire.” Some Tory critics fear his late burst might not quite be enough to get him over the finishing line.

Zac Goldsmith listens to his mayoral rival during a recent debate

Taking over the baton from Johnson was never going to be easy; there is only one Boris. Goldsmith has plenty of natural charm but lacks the confidence that oozes out of Johnson. He has sometimes looked like a shy rabbit caught in the media’s headlights. His privileged background may be more of a problem for him than Boris, although both men went to Eton. (Goldsmith, already a rebel, was expelled at 16 for possessing cannabis). Boris was a scholarship boy while Goldsmith’s billionaire financier father Sir James, who founded the anti-EU Referendum Party, left a trust worth an estimated £300m to his family. “I was dealt a good hand in life,” Zac Goldsmith admits, “But my job is always to play it well and I’ve campaigned every day of my life for things I’ve felt are important.” A survey of Londoners by Populus found that Goldsmith is seen as “posh” and “privileged”, but slightly more Londoners regard him as honest and trustworthy than those who think the opposite.

Goldsmith can match Johnson in the independent-minded stakes, which is why the Tory high command wanted him to run for mayor. He threatened to resign as MP for Richmond Park if the Government went ahead with a third runway at Heathrow – a big factor in its decision to postpone a decision until after the mayoral election.

As a maverick backbencher, Goldsmith has campaigned for constituents to have the power to “recall” underperforming MPs, forcing them to fight a by-election, but ministers diluted his original plans. He won his seat in 2010 with a modest majority of 4,091, which he increased to 23,015 last year – the largest increase of any MP at that election.

The former editor of The Ecologist magazine has strong green credentials – an important issue given London’s poor air quality. He pledges to ensure 50,000 homes are built each year and admits that Johnson could have done more to tackle the capital’s housing crisis. He would freeze council tax but not bus and tube fares like Khan, saying that more revenue may be needed to improve the network.

Goldsmith’s other selling point is that he is the runner in this two-horse race who would get the best deal for London from the Conservative Government.

Yet Goldsmith has never quite escaped Boris’s large shadow. He immediately copied Johnson by announcing he would defy Cameron and vote for Brexit in the June referendum. It would have been tricky to take a different line to the outgoing mayor but with hindsight it might have been better to get in first.

If Goldsmith wins on Thursday, running a city of eight million people would suit his mission to “do useful stuff”. If he loses, the 41-year-old is likely to remain a backbench thorn in his party’s side. Friends insist he is not interested in a Cabinet post and would not make the grubby compromises needed to climb the greasy pole. A lot of politicians say that; Goldsmith is probably one of the few who really means it

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