It was Theresa May who, 15 years ago, memorably advised her fellow Conservatives that people called them “the nasty party” and that this was doing them no good. By selecting Zac Goldsmith as their candidate to fight Richmond Park, members of the party May now leads have not only endorsed nastiness, they have embraced stupidity too.
Goldsmith, you will recall, was Richmond Park MP from 2010 until he lost a huge majority at a by-election in December, running as an independent. Goldsmith had brought about the by-election by keeping a promise to resign his seat if a Conservative government chose to expand Heathrow airport.
This appeared honourable, but maybe wasn’t quite as saintly as it seemed: Goldsmith regretted making the high profile pledge and was now stuck with it. Note too that his reputation as a man of principle had been badly damaged earlier last year by his disastrous attempt to become London Mayor, the dirtiest election campaign the capital had seen since the notorious Bermondsey by-election of 1983.
Now Goldsmith is back in Conservative colours and hoping to re-gain Richmond Park from Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney, who deprived him of it six months ago. He might succeed. Olney’s win was spectacular, but by-elections are one-offs, her majority is small and Goldsmith will have the full Tory election apparatus at his disposal, unlike before.
But whatever the result in Richmond Park, the return of candidate Goldsmith, comfortably achieved after his appearance at the selection hustings was apparently greeted with thunderous applause, won’t help the Tory cause in London overall.
Although ostensibly about aviation policy, Goldsmith lost the by-election because of two things. One was Brexit: a long-time Eurosceptic, he had campaigned for Leave in the EU referendum and the electors of strongly pro-Remain Richmond did not approve. The other was that poisonous mayoral campaign, which slyly sought to exploit anxieties about Islamic extremism in order to damage Labour’s candidate Sadiq Khan, a Muslim.
Masterminded by the company of specialist fear-monger Sir Lynton Crosby and robotically carried by a compliant Tory press, it backfired so completely that Khan not only secured a percentage of first preference votes that, despite the drag effect of Jeremy Corbyn, matched Labour’s vote share at the general election of 2015, he also won the great majority of second preferences, indicating that Liberal Democrat and Green supporters too had recoiled from Goldsmith’s tactics.
Yet despite this landslide rejection, Goldsmith has never once expressed regret for his mayoral campaign, not during it or since. Rather, he has stoutly defended it. Its premise was that because Khan had, when an MP and in his previous career as a human rights lawyer, supported civil liberty causes to which some Muslims who did not share his impeccably liberal values also subscribed, this made him an apologist for fundamentalists or worse.
Goldsmith seemed to have forgotten that he himself had backed one of the very same causes, as had fellow Tories. He maybe never knew that Khan, who was first elected to parliament just weeks before the London bombings, was soon named Newcomer of the Year by The Spectator magazine, then edited by Boris Johnson, for what it called the “tough-mindedness and clarity with which he has spoken about the very difficult issues of Islamic terror,” and the “eloquence and ability with which he has represented a part of society that is in need of cogent representation”. His propagandists perhaps simply chose to ignore Khan’s consistent calls to fellow British Muslims to engage with mainstream politics.
Whatever was in Goldsmith’s head, his campaign misrepresented and smeared by association a fellow politician who is a shining example of a how being a Muslim in Britain can be wholly compatible with opposing extremism and embracing the mainstream values of its cosmopolitan capital. It was entirely disgraceful. It was also dimwitted. Yet Goldsmith still sticks up for it. And now his local party activists have as good as done the same.
This might not cause him to again lose in Richmond Park, though the Lib Dems will give it all they’ve got, and even voters there who haven’t been turned off by his attitude to Europe and his traducing of Khan might think it time that Goldsmith, after two such ignominious ballot box defeats, took a hint. But it will refresh recent memories of a shameful Conservative strategy that should have had no place in London and deservedly did it no favours at all. It was a nasty party piece of work. If it causes support for the Tories in the capital to drop a point or two, it will serve them right.