Tory civil war burning as resigning minister Zac Goldsmith and Rishi Sunak clash

The Prime Minister accused the Tory peer of quitting after refusing to apologise for his role in criticising an inquiry into Boris Johnson.

Sam Blewett
Friday 30 June 2023 16:13 BST
Boris Johnson loomed over the resignation of Lord Zac Goldsmith (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Boris Johnson loomed over the resignation of Lord Zac Goldsmith (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Archive)

The Tory civil war deepened when Lord Zac Goldsmith publicly clashed with Rishi Sunak after resigning with a scathing attack on the Prime Minister’s environmental “apathy”.

Mr Sunak accused the Conservative peer of quitting as a minister rather than apologising for his role in a campaign to undermine the Privileges Committee investigation into Boris Johnson.

But Lord Goldsmith hit out at “misleading” remarks from No 10 and insisted he was “happy to apologise” for his criticism of the investigation that found Mr Johnson lied to MPs over partygate.

The former MP, given his peerage by Mr Johnson, resigned on Friday morning as the Prime Minister was announcing a major shake-up of NHS recruitment.

In a letter to Mr Sunak, the minister who had the environment in his brief at the Foreign Office said he had been “able to get so much done previously” but has “struggled even to hold the line in recent months”.

“The problem is not that the Government is hostile to the environment, it is that you, our Prime Minister, are simply uninterested,” Lord Goldsmith wrote.

“That signal, or lack of it, has trickled down through Whitehall and caused a kind of paralysis.

“This Government’s apathy in the face of the greatest challenge we have faced makes continuing in my current role untenable.”

Mr Sunak’s attempt to portray his Government as working to fix the problems in the NHS with a workforce plan on Friday was rocked by the resignation.

“Thank you for your letter. I accept your resignation,” Mr Sunak responded to Lord Goldsmith.

“You were asked to apologise for your comments about the Privileges Committee as we felt they were incompatible with your position as a minister of the crown. You have decided to take a different course.”

Mr Sunak was forced to defend his “proud” track record at a Downing Street press conference on the NHS, saying the UK will continue to play a “leadership role globally” on the environment.

But Lord Goldsmith continued the public row by countering the Prime Minister, claiming he was “happy to apologise” for sharing his views on the Johnson inquiry.

“In response to some misleading briefing from Number 10, I’d like to make clear I am happy to apologise for publicly sharing my views on the Privileges Committee,” he said in a follow-up statement.

The peer acknowledged he should not have commented publicly as a Government minister, adding: “Number 10 asked me to acknowledge that and made clear there was no question of my being sacked if I did so. I was – and am – happy to do so.”

The row came a day after Lord Goldsmith was named by the Privileges Committee as one of eight MPs and peers who had launched “attacks” on investigation in an interference campaign.

Lord Goldsmith, tweeting his support in June of a message suggesting the cross-party group of MPs were a “kangaroo court” carrying out a “witch hunt”, was cited in its report.

“Exactly this,” the peer had written.

“There was only ever going to be one outcome and the evidence was totally irrelevant to it.”

Downing Street sources told the PA news agency Lord Goldsmith was asked to apologise on Thursday afternoon after featuring in the damning report.

Until he quit, Downing Street had been saying Mr Sunak had full confidence in him as a minister despite the findings.

The committee said the Commons should consider whether the actions of MPs involved, including staunch Johnson loyalists Nadine Dorries and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, amounted to contempt of Parliament, as well as what further action to take.

Senior Conservative Dame Andrea Leadsom said Lord Goldsmith’s resignation was “inexplicable”, saying his claim that Mr Sunak does not care about the environment is “flat wrong”.

The former environment secretary told Times Radio: “It’s much easier to throw your toys out the pram and become a protester than it is to actually be inside the tent finding solutions.”

Labour’s shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said Mr Sunak’s “weakness” had been laid bare after he refused to condemn Lord Goldsmith.

“This ‘simply uninterested’ Prime Minister can’t lead his own team, never mind lead the country,” the MP said.

“The Conservatives are in disarray – with mortgages soaring, NHS waiting lists rocketing, and in their own words: ‘Apathy in the face of the greatest challenge we face’.”

The Liberal Democrats said the Prime Minister should have “had the guts” to sack Lord Goldsmith the day before his ministerial resignation following his “brutal” censure.

Sarah Olney, the party’s Treasury spokeswoman, said: “This Conservative chaos is never-ending.”

Mr Johnson and his allies have been creating a steady stream of headaches for Mr Sunak, with the former prime minister resigning as an MP in anticipation of the Privileges Committee report.

Nigel Adams followed him out of the Commons, setting up two challenging by-elections for the Conservatives at a time when they are trailing far behind in the polls.

Ms Dorries, perhaps Mr Johnson’s staunchest ally, also announced her intention to quit with “immediate effect”, but is yet to do so formally as she seeks answers over the peerage she never received.

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