Zac Goldsmith has resigned as an MP and now faces a tough re-election fight
Expansion of Britain’s airport capacity is a thorny political issue which will seemingly never be resolved. For decades this debate has raged, yet successive governments have been unable to decide where new facilities should be developed, and in what form. The idea of a third runway at Heathrow Airport was first proposed in 2003 by the Blair government, but years of Conservative opposition have delayed these plans whilst alternative ideas have also swirled around, most notably the suggestion of a new Thames Estuary airport that was championed by Boris Johnson during his tenure as Mayor of London. Despite David Cameron’s long-standing opposition to Heathrow expansion, a stance that the former Prime Minister reiterated following his re-election last year, the Conservative government has had a change of heart since Cameron’s departure from Downing Street, and this week saw Prime Minister Theresa May throw her support behind a third runway in a move which has angered environmentalists, local campaigners and even some Tory MPs.
For years, the most outspoken Heathrow critic on the Conservative benches has been Zac Goldsmith, the colourful maverick whose Richmond Park constituency would be directly affected by the proposed expansion. Earlier this month, Mr Goldsmith wrote an article in which he boldly stated that he would ‘never let a third runway be built at Heathrow,’ instead spelling out the case for expanding the capacities of Gatwick Airport, and in the immediate aftermath of the government’s announcement on Tuesday he declared that he would be resigning his seat and leaving the Conservative Party. A by-election will now be triggered in Richmond Park, a contest which Goldsmith will fight as an independent.
Goldsmith’s actions are reminiscent of those of fellow Conservative MP David Davis – now the Brexit Secretary in Theresa May’s government – who resigned his seat in 2008 in protest against the Labour government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill which sought to curb civil liberties and detain terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge. However, unlike Goldsmith, Mr Davis was not taking action against a decision that had been made by his own party leadership, and as a result he did not leave the party, instead fighting the ensuing by-election as a Conservative and winning decisively. By abandoning his party over a ‘point of principle,’ Zac Goldsmith has displayed a staggering lack of loyalty in order to grandstand and indulge his own personal vanity.
It is inevitable that MPs will not always agree with every decision that their party makes, and in such situations they are able to defy the whips and vote against the party line. That is the correct way for elected politicians to take a principled stand on issues that matter to them, and it is the course of action that Mr Goldsmith should have taken. Instead, he has chosen to feed his ego by triggering an expensive by-election whilst ensuring that Theresa May’s precarious Commons majority will now be even smaller. The Conservative Party have not covered themselves in glory either, declaring that they will not be fielding a candidate against Goldsmith for fear of splitting the right-wing vote. As a result, this by-election will be a two-way contest between Goldsmith and the Liberal Democrat candidate, both of whom are strongly anti-Heathrow.
This reality is somewhat inconvenient for Goldsmith, who claimed that the contest would be a ‘referendum on Heathrow expansion’ despite the fact that there will be no viable pro-Heathrow candidate. The Liberal Democrats have realised this and have quickly moved to redefine the race, with the party’s candidate Sarah Olney claiming that it will instead be a referendum on Brexit, and as such Goldsmith’s actions could be even more damaging to Theresa May than anyone had previously thought. In the EU referendum, 70% of Richmond Park residents voted to remain in the European Union, making it potentially fertile territory for the Liberal Democrats’ staunchly europhile message. In contrast, Mr Goldsmith was a passionate supporter of the Leave campaign, having inherited the hardline euroscepticism of his father Sir James Goldsmith, the flamboyant anti-European campaigner.
Europe, not Heathrow, will therefore be the dividing line in this race, and despite Goldsmith’s impressive majority of over 23,000 this is a winnable seat for the Liberal Democrats. The party has a strong presence in this area, having held the seat until 2010, and Goldsmith’s large mandate probably owed more to the fact that he was the Conservative candidate in a good election year rather than his own personal popularity. In his doomed campaign for London mayor earlier this year, Goldsmith performed worse than average in Richmond, where his overwhelmingly middle-class constituents clearly did not appreciate the racially-charged mudslinging that dominated his campaign, and it is highly likely that his reputation in the area will have diminished even further since then due to his pro-Brexit stance.
Goldsmith’s tarnished image will also be compounded by the fact that he will not have access to the resources of the local Conservative association, and will therefore go into this race without the force of a major party machine on his side. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats will presumably throw everything they have at unseating Goldsmith, drawing on their reputation for waging tough ground campaigns that prioritise local issues.
With both candidates espousing the same line on the most pressing local concern – Heathrow expansion – the Liberal Democrats will be able to spend more time appealing to the post-Brexit anger that is so prevalent in Richmond whilst reminding voters of the ugliness of Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign. Just last year, Zac Goldsmith won re-election to Parliament with an increased majority and secured the Conservative nomination for mayor, but 2016 could be the year that he loses two elections and finds himself in the political wilderness. Such a scenario would be a fitting punishment for this modern-day Icarus who prizes vanity and self-promotion over loyalty and commitment.