I once tried to bribe Zac Goldsmith with a £50 note, but he didn’t bite even back then. He was about 15 years old, and the reason for the hush money was pure self-preservation. He was already good-looking and I knew he’d be even more so at 20, so I offered him 50 quid to stay 20 feet away from me for the next 15 years if he saw me talking to a girl. My bribe worked with his younger brother Ben, who grabbed the loot and never kept his side of the bargain. That was in 1997, when Jimmy Goldsmith formed the Referendum party and I covered its first conference as Atticus in the Sunday Times. (Jimmy got very suspicious when he saw money being given to young Ben, until I told him the reason. He then advised Ben to take the money and ignore the deal.)
I’ve always thought that Jimmy’s idea of offering the British people a vote on whether to stay in or out of Europe was a brilliant democratic coup, except that it didn’t best please the politicians and the media. Eighteen years later, we’re right back where we were. Except that we know a bit more about how deeply rotten and undemocratic Brussels really is. I went down to Putney with Jimmy, Zac and Jemima for the ’97 election-night results. When David Mellor got up to concede defeat to Labour, he turned instead against Jimmy, repeating the world ‘hacienda’ time and again. I was slightly under the weather, and yelled a horrible insult at him. I believe it made Zac flinch. Perhaps I was wrong, but hearing Mellor echo Michael Heseltine’s class-warfare slur against Jimmy outraged me. Especially as Jimmy was as self-made as Hezza and Mellor, except that he bought far better furniture than they did.
But I am writing about Zac, not Jimmy. A columnist recently opined that Zac sounds American with a bit of St Tropez thrown in. I guess I must be going deaf because Zac sounds pretty English to me, and if memory serves, I don’t think he’s ever been to St Tropez. (He’s a Cornwall person.) But if one doesn’t print lies about someone with inherited wealth, very good looks and not a small amount of intelligence, who does one print lies about? Integrity is not a word we usually associate with politicians — or journalists, for that matter — but if I had to choose a word that sums Zac up, it would be the i-word.
One can tell a lot about a man by playing poker with him — or cricket or even tennis. I’ve played all three with Zac, and he’s very tough when it comes to poker but rarely bluffs. I’ve never won a hand against him because all I do is bluff, and he seems to know it every time. On the cricket ground, he’s, well, cricket. Ditto with tennis. But it was his unsuccessful recall motion that best illustrates Zac’s integrity. That was an effort to hold MPs to account, and it was defeated because it was a bit like asking a crime syndicate to report to the police any crimes committed by its members.
Friendship aside, the reason Zac would make a great mayor is that he’s fiscally and socially liberal, and a devoted environmentalist. A true green, with none of that wild and crazy stuff, Zac wants to turn London into a Singapore-like city where one can breathe healthy air. But knowing trade unions and special interest groups, he’s got a tough road ahead. Real ecological changes will be allowed over their dead bodies. London’s air is among the worst in Europe, and Zac has some very good plans to improve it. The unions, on the other hand, will pour lotsa moolah into Sadiq Khan’s campaign. Zac’s rival has the same name as his ex-brother-in-law, and I hope that Imran will come west when the time is near and speak truth to the Pakistani powers that be. Voting for someone because his name is Khan would not serve the Pakistani community one bit. It would be a useless exercise in chauvinism and nothing more. More ugly high-risers, worse air, higher taxes; we all know the score. Zac believes that politicians disrespect people and communities. He wants city villages instead of dehumanising council estates. I am sure that Sadiq Khan is a decent man, but he’s in over his head. Zac knows the major institutional investors who can build affordable homes. At present, great parts of London are empty, built purely for speculation, which causes great resentment. I am someone who can afford to live anywhere I please, yet I find myself really angry when I see parts of Kensington and Chelsea, built and bought by speculators, totally dark at night. Imagine what that does to hard-working people without houses.
A lady journalist wrote that ‘wealth’s greatest gift is dignity’. A rich man is very unlikely to steal or be corrupt. I’m not so sure. More rich people are corrupt than poor ones. I had one business transaction with Zac and it went as follows: he gave me first choice. Not many would do that. He has also done that to others. There is a backdrop of widespread dismay with our political class. Come next May, I hope Londoners will vote Goldsmith. I for one will come back, and I hope that’s not a vote loser. Go, Goldsmith.