I’m baffled by the reaction to Zac Goldsmith’s decision to resign as the Conservative MP for Richmond Park. It is being interpreted, even by MPs on his own side, as an act of opportunism, a chance to rehabilitate himself with the metropolitan elite after his bruising defeat in the London mayoral election. Surprisingly few people seem willing to entertain the idea that he might be acting on principle.
Exhibit A in the case for Zac’s defence is the fact that he’s the MP for Richmond Park in the first place. Zac could have applied to be the candidate in any number of safe Conservative seats in 2010 and, given his profile, easily have been selected. Yet he chose a seat that was held by a Lib Dem with a 3,731 majority. His friends and political allies told him he was insane. Even if he won, they pointed out, he’d then face the prospect of having to defend a marginal seat. Not only would that mean he’d have to spend every spare moment in the constituency, but his political career could be unceremoniously cut short, as Michael Portillo and others have discovered. Nevertheless, he stuck to his guns because Richmond was the area he’d lived in all his life.
Then there’s the fact that he kept his promise to seek the consent of his constituents before entering the London mayoral race. MPs break promises all the time, but you’d be hard pushed to find an example of Zac doing that. Indeed, the reason he’s resigning and re-fighting his seat is because he promised the voters of Richmond Park that he would do precisely that if the government decided to expand Heathrow.
Some people have uncharitably claimed that he’s risking very little. He won the seat in 2010 with a swing of 7 per cent and increased his majority in 2015 to 23,015, although in pointing that out his critics are inadvertently acknowledging that he’s been an exemplary constituency MP. In fact, he could lose. Ladbrokes currently has the Lib Dem as the-favourite.
For one thing, Zac came out for Leave during his mayoral campaign and Richmond Park voted Remain in the EU referendum by a margin of two to one. Incidentally, his support for Brexit is another example of his integrity. He knew it would hurt him in the London election, but to have done anything else would have been a betrayal of his long-standing Euroscepticism as well as his father’s memory.
Don’t forget, he’ll be running as an independent, not a Conservative. Yes, he has a large personal following in the constituency, but will it be enough to beat the Lib Dem if he doesn’t have the imprimatur of being the official Tory candidate? Politicians don’t usually take those sorts of risks unless they care deeply about an issue.
Zac’s defeat in the mayoral election won’t help either. That Zac fought a ‘dog-whistle’ campaign has now become almost universally accepted as hard fact, but I beg to differ. He didn’t brand Sadiq an extremist or at any point imply that because he’s a Muslim he sympathises with Islamist terrorists. Rather, he pointed out that Sadiq had shared platforms with Islamists in the past in order to-ingratiate himself with activist circles in Tooting, just as he endorsed Corbyn in order to secure the mayoral nomination before ditching him. It was Sadiq’s naked opportunism that Zac was drawing attention to. If he was guilty of anything it was of being too high-minded, not taking the low road. He then became the victim of a clever smear campaign by Labour,-successfully spinning his attack on Sadiq’s flip-flopping as ‘Islamophobic’. Few smears are more effective than accusing your opponent of smearing you.
I’m sure that Zac feels aggrieved at being misrepresented in this way, not least because his own sister at one point sided with his critics. But that doesn’t mean that he’s using Heathrow as an excuse to withdraw from politics in a blaze of glory, knowing ahead of time that he’ll lose. That, too, has been suggested by his critics — often by the same people who claim he’s risking nothing by triggering the by-election. If he wanted to give up his political career, he’d just resign and have done with it. No, Zac is that rare creature in contemporary politics — a man of principle. He’s not a friend of mine and I don’t agree with his stance on Heathrow. But I take my hat off to him.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.