This article is from the July 2013 issue of Total Politics
Only a few years ago, it would have been very easy to characterise Zac Goldsmith as the young, good-looking and raffish playboy of British politics. It’s clear he still makes the ladies, young or old, go tongue-tied or weak at the knees (or both), that he’s extraordinarily wealthy and well-connected, and has had a bit of a jet-setter lifestyle. Looking from a distance, many would assume that he leads a glamorous life.
But first appearances can be deceptive. Goldsmith is instantly likeable, but also a very serious, thoughtful politician who enjoys getting stuck in, whatever the size of the issue. He’s a true campaigner and has deeply-held beliefs on the environment, planning, the recall of MPs, antibiotics, the European Arrest Warrant, Heathrow expansion and the influence of lobbying, to name a few. What appears to run through his many interests and campaigns is a genuine desire to leave something better behind to our children and grandchildren.
Many look at his rebellions against and disagreements with the Conservative Party leadership and characterise him as ‘a maverick’, perhaps even not a natural Conservative. Maybe he’s viewed by some Conservatives as part of the Cameron ‘A-list‘, the ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ era, which could partly emanate from the MP for Richmond Park’s particular lifelong interest in the environment.
He admits that despite a number of contacts with people such as Norman Tebbit and Oliver Letwin, he had not been a Conservative member – but he bridles at this thought that his politics are unconservative: “I put a big emphasis on the environment, and therefore people looking from the outside might assume I’m an uncomfortable Conservative. But my view has always been that you cannot be a proper Conservative unless you have an interest in the environment, and unless you understand the importance of living within your means and looking out for future generations. People who have very little interest in the planet on which we all depend, in my view, cannot seriously be considered to be Conservative. So, I regard myself to be a very true Conservative.”
If you understand this, you understand Goldsmith. He wants to weave a green thread through all Conservative Party thinking, and believes that, despite all the former president’s faults, we could learn a lot from Richard Nixon, who left a legacy through his environmental legislation. Margaret Thatcher has also left a green legacy. “She’s responsible for having made the first piece of international environmental legislation work, the Montreal Protocol,” he says.
Goldsmith also waxes lyrical over David Cameron’s speech on the environment in 2008. “He has done one of the best environmental speeches of any leader in any country. He nailed it,” he says. He also believes that unfortunately the government agenda has fallen short of the speech Cameron gave, despite there having been a number of good governmental initiatives. He believes the Treasury is holding things back.
He’s late for our meeting, but not because he’s been up all night at the casino; rather, he’s been trying to fix a difficult problem for a constituent. As we sit down, he apologises for chewing gum – he’s struggling to give up smoking, and the gum is supposed to help.
His large, well-known family is, he describes, “complicated but happy. If you look at my family now, we’ve got nephews in Pakistan. I’ve got a sister from South America, a brother in Central America. I’ve got, you know, half the family... where English is not the first language. But that for me was just entirely normal.”
Very protective of his family’s privacy, he’s not particularly comfortable discussing them because he feels it opens their lives up to press intrusion. “If you decide to make personal things public, you end up almost losing any ability to maintain a private life. For me, it’s a militant issue. I’ve never taken my children to a political event, they don’t come canvassing, they don’t come to local party events, I don’t even mention that I have children in my literature, because I want to make it absolutely clear that if the press ever steps over the line, I can’t be called a hypocrite.”
Goldsmith is, though, quick to volunteer he “was terrible at school, a reluctant pupil.” Indeed, he ran away from nursery school: “I have a very clear memory of running what felt like miles and miles – it was only a few yards – and I went to a pub and asked if they could take me home. They had no idea where my home was, and nor did I, but my uniform was a giveaway so I was returned to the school. I think that’s a theme which followed me through my schooling.” It’s a matter of record that Goldsmith zig-zagged from school to school, with apparently different reasons, ranging from disagreements between his mother and the headteacher to being expelled from Eton for smoking cannabis – which he now regrets. On recent returns to Eton, he’s been “overwhelmed by the facilities and the calibre of the school, and that’s not something you appreciate when you’re there.”
Sir James “Jimmy” Goldsmith, Zac’s father, is still a huge figure in his life. “He died 16 years ago and I still today, if I’m reading the papers or if there’s a big complicated international issue, I often think ‘I wish I could ask him his views on this one’, because he had a uniquely crisp mind. In my life I have never met anyone with as interesting or a clearer take on events. He saw things that were obvious to him but not to many others, for example the inevitable crisis of the eurozone.”
He saw a lot of his father as a child but less in his teens, partly because Jimmy was all over the world working and partly because he had other families. Nonetheless, Zac was very close to his father, and worked with him on the Referendum Party: “I was too young to play a substantial role, but I canvassed and supported it and did all I could. Really, it was my first taste of on-the-doorstep politics.” Goldsmith believes he has inherited from his father his sense of urgency for change, and his restlessness to campaign, which is why he wanted to become an MP: “I don’t see this as a type of comfortable club; I see it as a base to campaign, so that’s why I’m here.”
His constituency is an important part of his campaigning work, and it quickly becomes apparent that the MP for Richmond Park & North Kingston loves his patch with the genuine passion that only comes from it being his home territory. He knows the area so well, having grown up there – indeed, he spent many hours in the park itself. “When you grow up in an area and end up representing it in Parliament, it’s about as big a privilege as you can have,” he says cheerily. “It’s a happy area; it’s good for children, outdoors, on the cusp of Richmond Park... I spent god knows how long in the park – it was my playground [as a child], in a sense.”
There was recent speculation in the Mail on Sunday that Goldsmith would give up his seat so that Boris could fight it at a by-election as a precursor to becoming prime minister, but this fails to account for Goldsmith’s love of his home turf or the mathematics of the seat. “If you wanted to launch a leadership bid, you wouldn’t do it from Richmond Park & North Kingston”, is how he puts it. “I’m a big fan of Boris, I make no secret of that,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s very plausible to imagine him being the leader of our party one day, and I think he’d be a very good one, but my reflections about Boris relate to another time, whenever that should be. But I do see him as a very serious figure, as he’s unique in British politics for any party. Whatever that magic is, he’s got it.”
The Conservative MP is also clear, however, that leadership speculation is particularly unhelpful and irritating: “I don’t think there’s any value for the party, for government, or for the country, in divisions. I’m annoyed by leadership speculation because it’s not helpful. You need to try to hold together. You have to be willing to hold the government or your party to account, otherwise you may as well not be part of it, but equally unity is useful. It’s a valuable thing, not just for the party but also when you’re trying to run a country in very difficult times. It doesn’t help to have leadership attempts, speculation or conspiracy coups.”
Goldsmith rebelled quite a bit in his first three years in the House. He has described himself as ‘a committed backbencher’ in the past, and he turned down the chance of early promotion to parliamentary private secretary (PPS), but he clearly loves being an MP.
“It’s very frustrating, but very enjoyable being an MP, and it’s always interesting, always changing,” he explains. “My ambition is to be an active parliamentarian, an active backbencher holding the government to account, and I think turning down an albeit minor promotion was the right decision.”
He believes there are things he can do as an MP that he could never have done otherwise. He points to an issue close to his heart, antibiotics. He believes it will be the defining health issue in years to come:
“We’re on the cusp of ruining what our ancestors would have regarded to be the miracle drug, on the verge of no longer being able to rely on antibiotics. It should be on the front page of every tabloid in the country, day after day. I’m not talking about hospitals, but about intensive farming factories, chicken farms, pig farms, where most of our antibiotics are used.
“We’re abusing this extraordinary gift simply because our government, and previous governments, haven’t had the balls to stand up to vested interests and say, ‘stop abusing antibiotics’. If you need a hip replacement in 10 or 15 years’ time, it may not be possible.”
He’s now on a roll: “The very drugs we depend on, that our parents depend on, our children may depend on, are being pumped as a matter of course into huge farming units simply to keep animals in conditions where they would not normally survive. And a result is that bugs are developing resistance to these antibiotics, and that resistance is spreading.
“When he accepted the Nobel prize, [Alexander] Fleming warned that abuse of antibiotics would lead to a post-antibiotic age that would be darker than the age they were leaving. That’s where we are now heading, and yet this isn’t an issue that preoccupies Parliament.”
Goldsmith organised a debate on the issue in Parliament, and that in turn has moved the issue up the political agenda. Following his and others’ interventions, including the chief veterinary officer and the chief medical officer, he detects a new understanding on the part of ministers. “I wouldn’t have been able do this just as a campaigner in the outside world. It’s a small example of what an MP can do,” he concludes.
On another matter, Goldsmith is scathing about the influence of big business and the lack of reform to help small businesses, which he believes are the real backbone of the economy. He suggests that the government has failed to deliver the economic changes needed for SMEs to thrive and grow, and doesn’t believe there have been enough “game changers” to make a real difference, pointing out that “big business holds a disproportionate amount of power when it comes to politics.”
He points to Heathrow, as well as the manufacture of antibiotics, as an example.
“Why isn’t government protecting antibiotics for future generations?” he asks energetically. “It’s because, at every turn, our governments yield before big business, accepting hook, line and sinker nonsense arguments about the risk to the economy of doing the right thing. Big business is filling them with nonsense that, for example, our farming economy would collapse. I’d love to see a government unhook itself from dependence on its popularity and insulate itself against lobbying by big business. It’s better to be lobbied by all businesses.”
Heathrow is another issue on which Goldsmith wants to have his say. He believes that the chancellor and the government have simply accepted the big business line, that without Heathrow expansion, “the economy will shrivel up and die. And because it’s big business saying it, the instinct has been to go along with it.” Goldsmith is absolutely clear on his opposition to Heathrow expansion, and urges the government to make an early decision to rule it out and not use Sir Howard Davies’ airports inquiry to kick it into the long grass.
Despite confirming he wants to run again, Goldsmith admits Heathrow is a big problem: “I couldn’t stand on a manifesto that included a green light for Heathrow expansion. Of course there are going to be things in the manifesto that you aren’t going to agree with, that I’m not going to agree with, but that’s OK as long as the bulk of it is something that’s consistent. I couldn’t say that I support the manifesto but not the Heathrow bit – it’s too big an issue – so I wouldn’t stand as a Conservative. Whether I would stand at all, I don’t know… I wouldn’t join any of the other parties. I hope we won’t get that far, and I’m pretty confident that we’ll win that campaign, because more and more people, including those who’ve previously advocated a third runway, are coming over to our way of seeing things. We had a very good cross-party turnout in Barn Elms [a recent mass rally he organised] with Boris and 10 or 12 MPs.”
Goldsmith’s forthright views have been very much in evidence recently, following the Patrick Mercer fake-lobbying sting. He has long campaigned for a recall mechanism for MPs and a register for lobbyists, but is scathing about the government’s efforts to date:
“The government’s all over the place on recall. It delivered a draft bill that is the worst piece of legislation I’ve ever seen in my life on any issue. It would represent a step back, not forward. Instead of handing power to people, as recall should, it would hand power to a parliamentary committee, and all the things that most would regard as wrong-doing by an MP would not qualify them for a recall.
“It would not only not empower constituents, it would empower the whips and party hierarchies. For independents and mavericks, it’s a frighterning proposal, because if the committee decided to subject a member to recall, they would have no chance at all to defend themselves. The government promised recall, and that’s what it should bring in – not this fudge.”
He believes the proposals would empower the whips to decide who sits on the committee, which would not allow loyalists to be thrown to the wolves. “But they might,” he muses, “throw an awkward person like George Galloway [to them], and I don’t think that’s a healthy system.”
Recently, Goldsmith had a spat with the PM over planning legislation and permitted development rights. The MP led enough rebels against planned changes that were aimed at helping to get the economy moving, and forced a government compromise. He agrees that he’s been “a bit of a nuisance on planning,” but is happy with the compromise: “Yes, there are details to iron out, but the red line for me was that you don’t remove people’s right to object. This is therefore a good Tory solution.”
Surprisingly, Goldsmith admits to not knowing Cameron, his fellow old Etonian, very well. He believes the PM is “very capable” and understands the difficulties of leading a coalition government, yet he’s still concerned that there’s a lack of direction and vision. “Thatcherism – most people understand what that means, but if I ask you what ‘Cameronism’ means, you’d struggle to answer. It’s not clear where we’re heading and it’s not clear what the underlying vision is,” he says.
He still believes Cameron can win the next election, but insists we should use the remaining time to “strive for clarity”.
One can’t help but be impressed by Zac Goldsmith. Yes, he’s remarkably good-looking for a politician, but it’s more remarkable that, with his wealth and background, he wants to spend his time as an MP making things better for others. He’s a thoughtful, outspoken politician whose constant guiding principle is to pass on to the next generation a country and a world that hasn’t been damaged by those in power today. That’s about as Conservative as you can get.
Rob Wilson is Conservative MP for Reading East