Zac Goldsmith: "If my campaign against Sadiq Khan is negative, so be it"
As the battle for the capital turns personal, Zac Goldsmith says it’s his “duty” to make the choice facing Londoners clear. The Conservative candidate talks to Josh May
“I’ve never fought a campaign like this before, but I’ve never been up against an opponent like Sadiq Khan before.” Zac Goldsmith has discovered the contest to be the next Mayor of London is like none other in British politics.
The Conservative MP made his name in Parliament as an independent-minded campaigning backbencher who often forged alliances with opposition MPs. This election campaign has seen him move into unfamiliar territory as the battle against his Labour rival turns deeply personal. Goldsmith’s key attack against Khan centres on authenticity.
He comes armed with a number of issues on which Khan has purportedly U-turned: the mansion tax, sanctions against Israel, building on the green belt. He gives this damning verdict on the Labour candidate’s character: “The truth is I don’t know who he is. I don’t know what he stands for.”
He contrasts his own long-standing opposition to a third runway in West London with Khan’s recent conversion to the cause. “On Heathrow, just a few months before this election he was passionately in favour; he’s now passionately against. He tells us the facts have changed on air quality, but they haven’t. He was begged by his own buddies in government not to promote a third runway on air quality grounds and it was of zero interest to him at the time.”
The animosity of the campaign against Khan has been the subject of some controversy. Some have suggested that the attacks are such a departure from Goldsmith’s previous style that they must be the work of the team around him. If so, the candidate himself is certainly throwing himself into the plan wholeheartedly; he describes it as his “duty”, “responsibility”, “obligation”, “job” to flag up the risks of Khan reaching City Hall.
“I know that this campaign can’t just be about my offer to London versus his offer to London because my offer to London is based on things which I know I can deliver,” he says.
“That is not true of my opponent. He will fundamentally change his position depending on the audience he’s speaking to; he will promise things he has no intention or ability to deliver and it’s my job to make that clear. If I don’t then people won’t have the full grasp of the facts before they make a decision on 5 May.
“So that requires you to point out where he is being inconsistent, where he is promising things that can’t be delivered, or where he’s flip-flopping all over the place. On all the big decisions, on all the big issues facing Londoners we’ve heard complete opposites over and over from the same man. That’s the problem. I think it’s a very bad look in politics; I think it’s one of the reasons why people are increasingly pulling away from politics.”
He adds: “If I want to make this campaign an effective one, I’m required to not only talk about what I’d do for London, but to make the choice very clear. So if that’s a negative campaign then so be it. I have to do what I have to do; I have a responsibility to get this right.”
One of the most provocative criticisms of Khan came from defence secretary Michael Fallon, whom the Labour candidate accused of having “demeaned” his office. Fallon’s charge was that Khan was a “Labour lackey who speaks alongside extremists” and who “cannot be trusted” to keep London safe from terrorism. Although Goldsmith does not repeat the phrases, which were perceived by many as a bid to draw attention to Khan’s Muslim faith, he does not retreat from them.
“The point that’s been made relates to judgement. If you want to tackle extremism, if you want to be the head of the police, which is what the mayor will have to do, if you want to be the mayor of the most important city in the world, there are questions to be asked about someone who is willing to share a platform over and over and over again with people who do have extreme views. And I think, really, this is a legitimate question to be asked.”
Does he agree, then, that Khan “cannot be trusted” with London’s security? “I think his judgement has fallen so short that he has to make the case himself as to why he’s fit to hold this post.”
Previous incumbents of City Hall have been defined by their independence from parties’ top teams, a tradition into which Goldsmith fits easily. But unlike Khan, who has been at pains to distance himself from the party leadership during the campaign, Goldsmith has tried to position himself as the negotiator who can work with his colleagues in Westminster.
“To be an effective mayor you have to be able to get a good deal from the Government,” he says. “Ken showed that. Whatever one thinks of his policies, he was an effective mayor and Boris has shown that as well... That for me is a big and bold distinction between myself and my opponent, who just has no record at all of working with anyone at all outside his own political party.”
That embrace of the party establishment can have drawbacks, though, as demonstrated when a joint appearance with George Osborne was targeted by protesters angered by cuts to disability benefits in the Budget. Those cuts have since been scrapped – something Goldsmith describes with characteristic understatement as “not unwelcome news” – and he says the “savvy” denizens of the capital will not let the issue colour their choice on 5 May. The same holds, he argues, for his decision to back Britain leaving the European Union, the impact of which will be “immeasurably small” or non-existent.
“Londoners can separate parliamentary and government business from the job of the mayor, in the same way that I don’t think Europe is a distraction to the mayoral contest. Europe divides London straight down the middle, but people understand that it’s a separate issue; it’s not the job of the mayor to set the terms of welfare, nor is it the job of the mayor to take us out of Europe or keep us in Europe. I think people understand that.”
And he is sanguine about the splits at the top of the party triggered by Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the Cabinet: “If you look at the evidence, the party is united around me, for me to win on 5 May... They [the party] also understand that this is the biggest election between now and the general election, so it matters politically as well. So there’s no division as to where we stand on 5 May.”
Goldsmith did divide the Conservatives on one occasion in the last parliament, however. His unsuccessful bid in 2014 to strengthen significantly the Government’s recall proposals won the support of almost half of Conservative MPs in a free vote but fell well short of getting through thanks to a strong Labour turnout against his amendment. That campaign, too, bleeds into his narrative on Khan.
“I got a text a few hours before the vote from one of the frontbenchers saying ‘you ought to know that they [Labour] are whipping, they are whipping the party to vote down your amendment’. And the person doing the whipping was Sadiq Khan, who I’d spoken to about recall and who had told me he was supporting [it].”
Although reluctant to ruin the surprise of his upcoming manifesto proposals – “I’m not going to burst my own bubble here” – he confirms that he will bring forward plans “to make London’s democracy more vibrant”.
“I’m a big advocate of direct democracy and I’d like us to go as far as we can go... I will continue, as long as I’m involved in politics, pushing for direct democracy, of which recall is just one small part. And I’d like to have much more use of referendums; I’d like to have much more use of petitions, meaningful petitions; and I’d like people to take much more control over the way they do politics and be able to hold politicians to account much more than they currently do.”
One Labour MP who ignored that whipping operation and voted with Goldsmith on recall was Jeremy Corbyn. Goldsmith was one of the first last summer to warn his Conservative colleagues that Corbyn becoming Labour leader would spell bad news: either through a struggling opposition failing to hold government to account, or because the left-winger could capture the mood of the country. He stands by those comments.
“If you don’t have proper opposition, the government doesn’t work so hard and that’s not a good thing for anyone. But the bigger risk, actually, is that he captures people imagination and what I think is a very extreme and very radical offer gets picked up and forms the next government. That ought to scare the hell out of a lot of people.”
Some have seen the recent turmoil within the Conservatives as the product of a government that has grown complacent due to Labour’s disunity. But Goldsmith is agnostic on whether his warning has been realised yet.
“Would things be different now with a different leader? Well, of course they’d be different but I don’t know if they’d be better or worse. It’s very hard to know. We’d still be heading towards the mayoral elections, we’d still have the European referendum six weeks later and we’d still have the deficit to get under control. We’d still have many of the same issues to deal with.”
One unquestioned side effect of Corbyn’s election is the addition of “Islington” to the lexicon of political pejoratives. Is it unfair to depict Islington and the Hampstead of the traditional “Hampstead socialists” in this way? Goldsmith responds with a grin: “Every area has its own character. Sometimes that manifests in their politics and it manifests in lots of other ways as well. As you’d expect me to say, I want to be the Mayor for all London: Hampstead, Islington, Bromley and Bexley and everything in between.”
Another side effect of the Islington MP’s victory is that London is looked upon increasingly as a Labour stronghold. The Opposition’s gains in the capital in last year’s general election and Khan’s comfortable though not decisive lead in the opinion polls make Goldsmith the underdog in this contest. But he insists London is not a “Labour city”.
“It is a place where I think people are less attached to the rosette than they were in the past, and that’s a very good thing for democracy. It gives an opportunity to people like me, who on paper start very much on the back foot, 500,000 votes behind Labour. It gives me an opportunity to make the case with people who might not traditionally vote Conservative. And I think it’s working and I think the momentum – small ‘m’, the real momentum – is with my campaign.”
Goldsmith’s manner has – at least when he is not talking about Khan – been characterised by reserve and courtesy. What, to go back to David Cameron’s Partridge-esque declaration last year, pumps him up? Spreading the capital’s prosperity to all Londoners was his original stimulus, he says, but that is now being run close by a desire to keep City Hall out of Labour hands.
“I want to pick up where Boris has left off, I want to keep that success going but I want to find a way of making it work across the board because the reality is that, despite that success, too many people have been locked out and priced out of their own city. And that’s a dangerous place for a city to be in, and if we don’t resolve that issue, if we don’t make London affordable to Londoners then London will cease to be the most important city in the world. We all have a stake in that and that matters a great deal. That’s my principle motivation.
“But having thrown my hat in the ring, Labour has been through its various whatever you want to call it, bouts of madness. They’ve selected a candidate and I feel now that I have a duty to ensure that London makes the right decision on 5 May... [If Khan becomes mayor of London,] I believe that will be a disaster. We’ll have four years of bickering, blame, inaction; London will have a figurehead who is just, in my view, not fit for that office and I think he will be unable, because he’s unwilling, to get a good deal from government. And I think that’s a genuine threat, so my motivation has been amplified by the decision taken by the Labour party.”
The race to be next mayor of London has certainly seen a development of Goldsmith’s public image. He is confident that this more combative demeanour stands him in good stead for 5 May.
“If I keep on doing what I’m doing, I think it will be the right result.”