Zac Goldsmith is a charmer. Yes, he has good looks, a huge personal fortune and an open, easy way with people, but he also knows what they want to hear today.
“I have been probably the most outspoken and active campaigner against Heathrow’s plans for a third runway,” the environmentalist turned MP tells a room full of voters, and makes them smile.
Nobody here wants any more dirty, noisy jets flying over the leafy, lovely constituency of Richmond Park, on the banks of the Thames. But there is a problem. A really big one, means Goldsmith might not be re-elected.
There are things in the new Conservative manifesto that this Tory candidate absolutely hates – including a refusal to rule out building that third runway. “The policy is appalling. I went berserk when it was introduced and it has not changed since,” says Goldsmith, who warned his party that it was making a mistake back in 2012.
“If we enter the next election with a manifesto which does not rule out the expansion of Heathrow, I think the Conservative Party would be very badly defeated in areas beneath the flight path,” he told the BBC. And he went on: “I personally wouldn’t want to stand as a Conservative candidate on a manifesto that is ambiguous on this issue.”
But here we are in 2015 and Goldsmith is indeed standing as a Tory on a manifesto that could not be more ambiguous about Heathrow. It says … well, nothing much except that the Conservatives will wait until after the Airports Commission reports in June to say whether or not they support the new runway. So, they might just as likely say yes as no.
That’s a disaster for a candidate who has staked his reputation on opposition to the plan.
We meet at the hustings in Kingston Hill, where I ask if he really is as upset as he seems about the manifesto. “That’s a fact. I am obviously not happy. This is not my policy. I want Heathrow to be ruled out for ever. Full stop.”
This is a matter of huge personal importance to Zac, as many voters know him.
The son of the late financier Sir James Goldsmith and brother of Jemima Khan has lived almost his whole life under the flight path. And he has spent much of that life appearing in the gossip columns and society pages, whose picture editors love his sharp features and boyish, tousled hair.
He does have a strong personal appeal, with great manners and a piercing gaze that is somehow kind and ruthless all at once. But mostly, tonight, he just looks knackered. The hair has gone grey since we last met. Maybe it’s the stress of being both blue and green.
Now Robin Meltzer of the Liberal Democrats has called for him to stand down from the race, which is a tight one.
“How can he put himself forward? He is essentially standing for a party which will say yeah, OK, if the Commission says we should build a new runway at Heathrow. They won’t listen to the few people in their party who are against it,” Meltzer says. “You can’t pretend to float above party politics like he does if at the first test you completely fold.”
That is a fair point, which also raises a big issue about manifestos. All the parties have published them over the past week, laying out hundreds of pledges in page after poorly produced page. Whoever chose that awkward shot of Ed Miliband fiddling with his ring finger ought to be shot themselves. The staccato prose reads like. Hemingway after. One Scotch. Too. Many.
But does anybody actually ever read these mighty tomes? And what is the point of a manifesto anyway, if even the candidates, like Goldsmith, just ignore the bits they find appalling?
“Well a manifesto is … ha! Yeah, it’s a very big question,” he says, laughing a little. “It’s a set of promises. It’s very difficult now, in a world of coalitions, because you can’t say what is a red line.”
He is making one very big promise of his own, though, in response to the awkward position his party has put him in. “I pledged to trigger a by-election if the party gives a green light for expansion. And I obviously would.”
So let’s get this straight. He’s asking people to trust him as a Tory at the same time as saying he will stand down and make the voters do it all again over the summer if the party turns out to be unsound on this issue after all?
“I want people to know that they have a second chance,” he says. “If they trust me to fight on this issue and I fail – if I can’t stop my party from giving the green light – they will be able to hold the Government to account. A by-election focuses everybody’s attention on this one constituency and this one issue. That is a good thing.”
Will he stand as an independent in that case? “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it yet. I might just be sick of the whole thing.”
It is an unusual approach, to say the least. Why shouldn’t people just vote for the Lib Dem candidate, whose manifesto is clearly against the third runway?
“The Liberal Democrat manifesto is b*******,” says Goldsmith. “First of all, is this a red line for them in a coalition? No, it is not. Therefore, why does their promise mean anything at all?”
They had the chance to stop the expansion when they were in government, he says. The same might be said of his own party, but he presses on.
“Two, I don’t trust them. I think they wanted Heathrow back on the agenda so they could campaign on this issue. I think it stinks. They put the party before the community. I regard that manifesto pledge as bull****.”
Aren’t they all, though? The people of Richmond seemed to think so, when I spent an afternoon in the riverside parks and pubs asking if anyone had read a manifesto. Nobody had.
“I already know who I am going to vote for. Nothing they have done has embarrassed or disappointed me,” said Carla, 44, who works in education.
“I haven’t read a manifesto since they gave us one at school,” said Ellie Whittall, 24, a sports teacher. “I won’t be reading one now.”
Samson Adams, 21, was restoring a skerry boat by the river. “I am not going to vote. They are all saying the same thing, it makes no difference.”
I tested his theory by asking people to match policies to parties. Could you do it? Which party has promised to abolish tax for anyone earning less than £13,000? Sounds like Labour, most people said. Wrong. It was Ukip.
How about the promise to “ensure” that everyone studies maths to the age of 18? The majority of people said that was the Tories, but it was Labour (that raised a few eyebrows).
This general level of ignorance about the promises might actually help Goldsmith, who finds himself at odds with his party manifesto on another issue that really matters to him.
“I said I would not want to stand on a manifesto that is pro-nuclear, but I am,” he admits. “I am opposed to nuclear power.… [but] it’s not a resigning issue.”
Why not? “My view is that if you don’t like something then you hang around and become a pain in the arse.” The Commons is overwhelmingly pro-nuclear, he says. “I’m in a minority. So what do I do? I vote in the way I can. I ask tricky questions. I try to campaign.”
He insists that the Conservatives are committed to a green agenda, despite reports that the Chancellor openly ridicules it. “George Osborne is a figure within a very large party. We don’t speak as one. I wouldn’t be able to be there if we did.”
Fair enough, but when we spoke before the last election it all seemed pretty clear. David Cameron was promising the greenest government ever. Goldsmith said he would personally stick to his principles as an MP – he actually, astonishingly, said his great wealth made him “not corruptible” – and walk away, even campaigning against the party, if things did not go his way. Dave did not deliver, experts have said, so why didn’t Zac walk?
“I question that. Our conversation was mainly about the environment. By being there, I have had an impact,” he says. “The marine stuff in the manifesto is the biggest and boldest pledge by any party in history around conservation. It is a campaign I started and have led in Parliament.” The waters around the Pitcairn Islands were given protected status in the last Budget, but the manifesto now promises to extend that to Ascension Island and 14 other overseas territories, a bigger conservation area than that held by the United States.
“We have almost four times as much renewable energy now as we had in 2010. That’s a big deal. I’m proud of that. I’d like us to go much further, but we are moving in the right direction.”
The Green Investment Bank is something else he called for that has been delivered, he says.
“I can pick holes in what the Government has done – the planning reforms have been appalling – but this is not the Green Party. It is the Conservative Party. My job is to try to Green it up as much as possible.
“As a backbencher, without any kind of portfolio, I think I have been able to do that.”
Half an hour later, he tells the hustings where he is coming from. “I believe the first role of an MP is to hold government to account on behalf of his or her constituents… not to submit yourselves to a voluntary lobotomy.”
Cue laughter. You won’t find that in the Tory manifesto – but then none of the people applauding Zac Goldsmith seem to care.
The Independent has got together with May2015.com to produce a poll of polls that produces the most up-to-date data in as close to real time as is possible.
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