George Pascoe-Watson: Zac Goldsmith cannot be David Cameron’s priority
THE INSIDER: The PM is rooting for his Old Etonian colleague to get into City Hall, but the Remain campaign will always come first.
The debate is raging in political circles: does David Cameron actually want Zac Goldsmith to be London Mayor?
What a strange question to ask. Why would the PM be interested in anything other than a third Tory term in power in the world’s greatest capital city?
And it’s true, speak to the Cameron team and it’s clear the PM is playing his part in the London election, dragooning his own MPs to campaign on the doorstep too.
Indeed, he can’t be faulted in his efforts to make Zac Goldsmith the next London Mayor. The PM weighed into the increasingly bitter and personal fight for London’s City Hall last week attracting accusations of racism.
Mr Cameron knew he’d be attacked for playing the race card: but told aides in number 10 it was a fight worth having regardless. And he pulled no punches at the despatch box.
The Prime Minister declared: “If we are going to condemn not just violent extremism but also the extremism that seeks to justify violence in any way it is very important that we do not back these people and we do not appear on platforms with them.
“I have to say I am concerned about Labour's candidate for Mayor of London.”
And when Jeremy Corbyn attacked him, Mr Cameron went further.
“The leader of the Labour Party is saying it's disgraceful. Suliman Ghani, the Honourable Member for Tooting has appeared on a platform with him nine times. This man supports IS.
“Anyone can make a mistake about who they appear on a platform with, we are not always responsible for what our political opponents say but if you do it time after time after time it is right to question your judgement.”
Within minutes, the incoming fire started. A range of Labour figures led the assault on Mr Cameron, accusing him of “dog-whistle” politics, playing an Islamophobia card.
But he stood his ground. He’s appeared a number of times with his Old Etonian candidate, and has plans to appear more.
There’s a strong campaign behind Zac. A number of Conservative officials and advisers have been seconded from their important government roles to the Back Zac team. Lynton Crosby, the pollster credited with helping win the 2015 General Election, has some of his top operators at the helm of Zac’s London bid.
And there are strong arguments, too. A point often repeated is that only Zac would have direct access to the government of the day if elected.
This matters. Boris Johnson has been able to make things happen in the capital precisely because he’s been a close – and I mean close – friend of the PM and Chancellor for more than a quarter of a century.
Even Ken Livingstone had the ability to get the best out of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when he had the keys to City Hall. Yet Sadiq Khan would have no such preferred treatment were he to win, say Tories.
The elephant in the room here is Jeremy Corbyn. What’s the one thing that Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne dream of – assuming they keep Britain in the EU in June’s referendum?
Their vision is of a 2020 General Election being fought against a Labour Party led by Mr Corbyn. Nothing matters quite as much as this. And so the image of Mr Corbyn claiming credit for Mr Khan’s Mayoral victory on May 5 – although hard to swallow in the moment – is surprisingly attractive to Conservatives at the very top. It would cement the Labour leader in his post for another period of time, and make it harder still for his own moderates to unseat him.
The longer the Tories have Mr Corbyn at the helm, the more assured they are of holding power for the next decade at least. And every year that passes, the more left-leaning moderates despair about their Labour Party.
This corrosion is not just tactical. It’s not just the damage that will be done now, and in the short term. It’s strategic in that it the damage will be felt for many years to come. Perhaps, as the union leaders become even more gung-ho, the Labour Party will never come back to election-winning strength, say Conservative thinkers.
Does this all mean the Premier is fighting tooth and nail for Mr Goldsmith? The answer is a qualified “yes”.
Mr Cameron is a campaigner by nature. Yet the campaign he’s fighting right now is that for his political life. Winning the EU referendum is taking his all. Even after a disastrous week for the Brexit campaign, the Premier won’t ease up. Turn-out on June 23 is crucial to his chances of saving his political skin.
A strong remain result will hand Mr Cameron the kind of decisive power he wants to build his vision of a much more fair and progressive Great Britain.
So the PM is massively constrained in how much campaigning he can actually do for Zac. In a world of priorities, the Remain campaign is the number one.
Picture by: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment