Will the greenest and most glamorous of the new crop of Conservative MPs stay the course?
Visitors to Richmond Park in south-west London, where Henry VIII used to hunt, are sometimes surprised to see large flocks of noisy green parakeets which have made their home there. Their presence is variously attributed to globalisation (imported from more exotic climes, their forerunners escaped and bred) and climate change (warmer London winters mean they have unexpectedly survived and thrived). Both are causes close to the heart of another exotic resident, the Conservative MP for Richmond Park, Zac Goldsmith.
Goldsmith is still only 37, impossibly handsome (“everybody fancies him, both women and men,” confided one Tory insider), a hard-working constituency MP, rich — his late father, the tycoon Sir James (“Jimmy”) Goldsmith, left him a large fortune — and a dedicated environmentalist. Yet he is something of a contradictory character. He opposes budget airlines but thinks nothing of flying to the Caribbean on holiday; he campaigns to save the countryside from development but supports the wind farms that also despoil it; and he is an increasingly vocal critic of capitalism, from which his fortune derives.
In March he went out of his way to praise Ed Miliband’s attack on capitalism, when the Labour leader made a distinction between “producers” and “predators”. “I think Ed Miliband was right to raise this and right to use the language he did,” he said. “He was flirting with a very important issue.”
Goldsmith’s flirtations with the Left will do nothing to endear him to his own party leaders, from whom he has become increasingly distant since he was elected in 2010. Then he was seen as the poster-boy for Cameron-style “liberal conservatism”. In some respects he resembles Cameron. Both are good-looking, wealthy Tory modernisers. Both were educated at Eton, though Goldsmith, nine years Cameron’s junior, was expelled after being caught with a large stash of marijuana. Cameron, ever lucky, got off with a warning for a similar offence.
Goldsmith went to work for his eccentric uncle Teddy, who owned and edited the Ecologist magazine. Zac took it over and modernised it. Cameron drafted him onto the Conservative quality of life policy group, to reshape the party’s environmental policies; Goldsmith co-wrote its report. Cameron also placed him on the A-list of prospective candidates. Goldsmith repaid his leader’s faith by overturning the Liberal Democrat majority in Richmond Park with a majority of just over 4,000.
While the coalition pushed its green agenda, Goldsmith’s stock continued to rise. But thanks to austerity and the unforeseen departure of the Environment Secretary Chris Huhne, the environment has been pushed to the bottom of the government’s priority list, leaving Goldsmith isolated and disillusioned. He has voted against the government 19 times in two years. He even threatened to resign and trigger a by-election if the government reneges on its promise not to allow a third runway at Heathrow, under whose flightpath Richmond lies.
Like his father, founder of the anti-EU Referendum Party, Zac Goldsmith has little patience with the way politics is done in Britain. He argues for what he calls “direct democracy”: local referendums on matters citizens deem important (local councils apparently being insufficiently democratic); and for “recalling” unpopular or corrupt MPs and forcing them to stand for re-election. He was angered by the government’s failure to include a recall bill in the Queen’s Speech last month. His support for a referendum on UK membership of the EU cost him a plum job as Cameron’s green envoy. However, some of his campaigns are bearing fruit. Despite its promise to abolish quangos, not create more of them, the coalition last month committed itself to the creation of a Groceries Code Adjudicator (Ofspud?) to force supermarkets to treat suppliers “fairly”, as proposed by Goldsmith in his 2009 book The Constant Economy.
He loathes the tabloid press, perhaps understandably after the Sun ran a front-page story headlined “£300m Tory’s bedding a pal of his wife”. Goldsmith subsequently left his wife Scheherezade, with whom he has three children; the divorce is reported to have cost him £20 million. He now lives with Alice Rothschild. However, he blew an opportunity before the Commons committee on privacy and injunctions last December. Asked to comment on the argument that newspapers need celebrity coverage to survive, he replied: “Nobody is saying Auschwitz should have been kept open — it created jobs.” Any message he hoped to put across was lost in the resulting furore.
Where does Goldsmith go from here? He admits he has no chance of ministerial preferment. He deserves praise for his independence, but it remains to be seen whether he has the patience to stay the course as a backbencher with little to show for his tireless campaigning, or whether the parakeets of Richmond Park will still be around long after he has left the local scene.