Stephen Robinson

A toe-curling tragedy

The Tory bid to retain the mayoralty seemed to occur in a ­vacuum, shielded from the public gaze

A toe-curling tragedy
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Zac Goldsmith spent almost every day out on the stump during his London mayoral campaign dressed in the formal dark suit he inherited from his father, and had recut on his death in 1997. At least that is what a member of his team told me as I was out observing proceedings one day.

I think that detail was offered as a bit of journalistic ‘colour’ to show Zac’s sense of filial duty, but that was the only sense in which his painfully understated campaigning could be said to have owed anything to Sir James Goldsmith’s bombastic, manic style when he ran the Referendum party.

Some political campaigns are failures; others are simply tragedies, and Zac Goldsmith’s falls into the latter category. Writing this two days before polling day, one cannot exclude the possibility that turnout could sink as low as the 32–33 per cent mark, and that white middle-class voters in the outer suburbs will turn out while the younger, more liberal supporters of Labour’s Sadiq Khan will stay in bed. Zac’s staff were assiduously promoting this notion.

But even if there is an upset, Goldsmith’s campaign must be classed an embarrassment, and in some ways a disgrace, as an effort by Conservatives to win over the electorate of a great capital city. It is worth remembering that last summer Zac was 2/1 favourite to win on what then seemed likely to be a prospectus of optimism.

Zac Goldsmith himself seems an amiable enough soul, though his thin CV and past business failures scarcely qualify him to stand up as the candidate of enterprise against what he classes as the ‘divisive’ figure of Sadiq Khan.

Khan seems dim and slippery and could have been beaten by the right sort of Conservative candidate, especially after the new Islington-based Labour leadership cabal declared jihad against London Jews. This raises the question: who at Conservative HQ really thought it was a good idea to present to multicultural London as successor to an Old Etonian mayor with star quality another OE — with none? Notwithstanding some voters’ anxieties about the people Khan has shared a platform with over the years, was that really do-able in London these days?

The absurdity of the proposition first became obvious to me when, against initial resistance from the Zac media operation, I joined the campaign in Romford market on St George’s Day. Romford, one of the outer parts of London where Zac needed to pile up votes in order to have a chance, remains so doggedly Caucasian that even the Bob Marley tribute band banging out reggae numbers were white.

Here the problem was immediately apparent. The locals wanted to talk to Zac not about transport or business rates, but about Europe, and why we should leave.

I couldn’t help thinking that had Boris Johnson been out campaigning here, he would have been wearing a comedy red and white top hat, or would have borrowed someone’s bulldog for the day, or at least done something to get himself noticed. One of the lessons to be learned from this fiasco of a mayoral campaign is how incredibly good Boris Johnson is as a political showman who can close out elections.

Through Romford I tagged along with Zac and a nicely spoken girl from Conservative HQ and genial Tim, who was Zac’s press man, and it took me a while to fathom why this felt such a peculiar campaign event. Then it hit me: I was the only journalist who had come along to cover it. True, there was a photographer present, manically taking pictures of Zac, but it turned out she was working for the campaign, not the media.

There was not a single reporter present — no one from the Romford Recorder, or the Standard, or from BBC London television news or any of the various local radio stations. Later that day we moved on from Essex into the Tory redoubts of Chislehurst and Bromley in the Kent suburbs, and all day The Spectator maintained its absolute exclusivity in its access to the Goldsmith campaign.

It is often said that modern political campaigning is designed only for television cameras; Back Zac was almost a virtual campaign that seemed to occur in a vacuum, shielded from the public gaze, as though people might be embarrassed by it.

It turned out there were good reasons to shield Zac from the press. When he was presented to the media, it tended not to end well. He went to a pub to be photographed with Boris having a pint but held his glass like a 1950s pantomime dame. He attended the Asian Awards dinner, at which he professed his love of Bollywood films, but then when asked on camera which were his favourite films and stars, he couldn’t name one. Watch it above — through your fingers if you like excruciating video nasties.

The Asian Awards event was a month ago, but the toe-curling footage was distributed only at the weekend just as Labour’s anti-Jewish stuff reached its peak. Sadiq Khan is famously the son of a bus driver, but his campaign operation was smoothly overseen by Patrick Hennessy, less famously another Old Etonian, who instinctively knew to keep something in his back pocket for a difficult phase in the news cycle.

Back Zac was run by Mark Fullbrook, who officially oversaw strategy, but the fingerprints of his business partner, the veteran Australian hired gun Sir Lynton Crosby, seem to be all over the ‘dog whistle’ questions about Khan and his nasty Islamist friends. This criticism of Khan might have worked had he been running to be mayor of Basingstoke, but in London, where many voters pride themselves on their ‘tolerance’ to all, it was unlikely to gain much traction. It also allowed Khan’s slicker media operation to bat back the charge with claims of ‘Islamophobia’, which, though clearly unfair, do damage.

After an event in Chislehurst, I spoke to Zac in a remote part of a car park where he furtively satisfied his nicotine craving with an e-cigarette. I had heard indirectly from other sources that Zac’s brother Ben and sister Jemima and the wider family were furious with Cameron and Conservative HQ for messing up his campaign and for not allowing him to run as his own man. Zac was too stoic to be drawn on this point.

He insisted that Cameron had been entirely supportive, as had Boris, but one is left to wonder. He added that ‘nothing I have said about Sadiq Khan is untrue’, which is no doubt correct. But is also not really the point.

Stephen Robinson is the author of The Remarkable Lives of Bill Deedes.