September 9, 2011 5:17 pm

Rebel with a cause

Zac Goldsmith was an environmental campaigner long before he became a Tory MP – and his priorities haven’t changed

When Zac Goldsmith stood for parliament last year, it was as if Brideshead Revisited had been reinvented as politics. Amid the parkland and Thames-side water meadows of Richmond, well-bred and handsome men politely canvassed for votes, flitting attentively around their multimillionaire candidate: the richest and prettiest of the lot.

Fast-tracked into politics on David Cameron’s “A list” of new-look Conservative candidates for the 2010 election, Goldsmith was the poster boy of Cameron’s rebranded Tory party. Young, charming and with impeccable green credentials, this should have been his moment.

But by the time Goldsmith was elected as Conservative MP for Richmond Park in south-west London, something had changed. Instead of moving him into high-profile positions, the whips dispatched him to an airless office in what its denizens refer to as “the punishment corridor”.

Goldsmith takes a drag on yet another wispy roll-up and smiles. “Oh you’ve heard about that?” he says. He insists he likes his office for its central location, but others say the corridor is Westminster’s equivalent of the “Cooler” in The Great Escape. “It’s awful: no windows, no natural light,” says one who has been there. “You are surrounded by people who have managed to annoy the whips.”

“I suspect I’m not on a list of people who are going to emerge in the cabinet in the next reshuffle,” the 36-year-old MP says with studied understatement. Independent-minded, financially secure and apparently unbiddable, Goldsmith says: “I suppose what may be awkward is that I’m willing to use my vote in a strategic way, when you’re supposed to have a lobotomy.”

Goldsmith says he gets on well with the whips. “I had a funny e-mail the other day after one of these votes saying: ‘Zac – in future, perhaps you’d like to warn us when you’re going to vote with the government rather than against: it might save a bit of time.’” He insists the missive was sent in good humour. Others are not so sure.

“He had a lot of goodwill from people but he’s rather bungling and very naive,” says one fellow Tory MP, who argues that Goldsmith’s refusal to work the Westminster system and his propensity to pick unwinnable fights had blunted his impact. Another Tory MP said: “He’s a playboy – I don’t think he’s had any effect.”

Since the election, Goldsmith has not given a single in-depth interview about his new parliamentary career, perhaps a reflection of his conviction that “most of what is in the newspapers is a load of crap.” But today, in a field full of cows below Richmond Hill – less than 10 miles from Piccadilly Circus – he is ready to talk. Not only is the venue gorgeous (Wordsworth was among those inspired by the view), it is where Goldsmith feels at home.

Brought up in nearby Ham, he chose to fight his local and highly marginal home patch, giving up the chance to contest a much safer Tory seat in Hampshire. All MPs proclaim to love their constituency, but Goldsmith relishes representing his highly articulate constituents. He says he often stays up to the early hours, replying to an average 400-500 e-mails a day.

Standing in Petersham Meadows, an idyllic riverside stretch, it is easy to see why Goldsmith is such an attractive politician, revered by many in the environmental movement in which he made his name.

. . .

He turns up in a battered old Prius car, wearing dark cords, non-matching jacket and an open-necked blue shirt with an unruly collar. An only-slightly-greying mop of tussled hair sits atop facial features which seem to have bewitched – according to anecdotal evidence – a substantial proportion of the yummy-mummy electorate of south-west London.

Goldsmith was described in a 2009 Guardian interview by Decca Aitkenhead as having the kind of physical perfection that “makes all those clichés about gilded youth suddenly make sense, with his sculpted cheekbones, beestung lips, honied voice and tall, liquid grace”.

Part of Goldsmith’s appeal derives from that curious alchemy – perfected on screen by his friend Hugh Grant – of patrician self-confidence and endearing awkwardness. “I hate doing interviews,” he says, shifting from foot to foot.

He says he has not made any study of whether women were more likely to vote for him than men: “You can’t do that, can you?” But there was a frisson at the school gates before the 2010 election after The Sun reported – inaccurately Goldsmith says – that he wanted to ban vibrators because they used too much power. “It was a source of merciless teasing by mothers in Richmond,” he says.

Goldsmith family

A family shot from 1981: Lady Annabel, holding Ben, is next to Jane Birley, a daughter from her first marriage; Zac and Jemima stand below

Frank Zacharias Robin Goldsmith was born in 1975, the middle child of Sir James and Lady Annabel Goldsmith, an exotic pairing whose genes came from “every part of Europe”. His elder sister Jemima, formerly married to the cricketer Imran Khan, is a tabloid staple; his younger brother Ben is a financier and environmentalist.

Towering above the young Zac was his father Jimmy Goldsmith, who seemed to embody ­“buccaneering capitalism”; bombastic and idealistic in equal measure, he was credited with coining the phrase “When a man marries his mistress, he creates a vacancy”.

“I only knew him from the perspective of a child or a very young adult,” Goldsmith says of his father. “I think everyone in the family has some of the zeal gene. He was a mountain of a man. The most compelling and impressive person I have come across.”

The young Zac inherited his father’s euroscepticism, love of gambling and distrust of the media but most of all his passion for green issues. “I think every child is an environmentalist,” he says, as he tries to escape the attention of one inquisitive cow. “There comes a point where it is driven out of you – middle-aged cynics tend to dominate public life.”

But isn’t all this greenery a rich man’s passion? Goldsmith describes as “nonsense” the widely reported £300m inheritance he received when his father died in 1997, but he concedes that his wealth has helped him to focus on what he says is “the defining issue” for humanity. “I’ve been able to prioritise it as an issue because it was a choice available to me – it’s not available to everyone. I never had the pressure aged 17, 18, 19 or 20 of how to put food on my table.” He insists it is the poorest in the world who are most at risk from climate change.

Goldsmith was expelled from Eton – Cameron’s old school – after marijuana was found in his room. “Amazingly, at that one particular moment in my Eton career, I was innocent,” he says, insisting the cannabis belonged to someone else. “But I never complained about it because I was never particularly innocent at school.” He did not go to university, instead deciding to travel the world. “I think university is hugely overrated for most people,” he says, insisting that a wide range of good apprenticeships is more useful than three years of light work and heavy drinking. “I would not encourage my children to go to university.”

Zac Goldsmith with his family

Zac Goldsmith with his family at the 1997 election; Sir James stood for the Referendum party, which he founded

He is not embarrassed about his start in life. “I got a good hand and my job is to play it as well as I can. There’s no point shying away from it. One of the great privileges of having money – among many others – is being able to support various causes. You can squander a privileged position.”

Goldsmith became an environmental activist, running The Ecologist magazine, founded by his uncle Teddy; he also has an organic farm near Tavistock, where the local joke is that he is one of a select band of Jewish pig farmers in Devon. Inevitably there was surprise when he decided to try to enter Westminster, even more so as a candidate for the Conservative party, the party of business. But the choice was not altogether surprising. Goldsmith shares Tory views on tough economic discipline, euroscepticism and a robust approach to law and order. “I think it’s amazing they weren’t using water cannons,” he says of the initially restrained approach shown by London’s police during August’s riots.

Goldsmith’s endorsement of the Tories delighted David Cameron; it was as symbolic as the decision to swap the party’s torch logo for a tree. But there were limits to Cameron’s embrace of green issues, as the young ecowarrior was about to find out.

When he co-wrote a paper for Cameron in late 2007 – Blueprint for a Green Economy – parts of it were unhelpfully or inaccurately leaked in advance to a hostile press in an apparent attempt to discredit it. Goldsmith blames Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor, who was then Cameron’s press chief. Along with the alleged ban on vibrators, Goldsmith was presented as the scourge of Middle Britain, planning to tax gas-guzzling family cars and charge them for parking at the supermarket. “Coulson, I suspect, does not share my interest in the environment,” he says. None of the ideas made Cameron’s election manifesto.

I’m willing to use my vote in a strategic way, when you’re supposed to have a lobotomy

As we wander across the meadow to a very chi-chi café, Goldsmith looks out contentedly across a timeless scene of the kind he wants to protect. He says the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has had a “mixed” record on the environment and he fears new planning laws could unleash unwelcome housing on scenes like this.

One of his big causes has been to champion local referendums so that people can block unpopular big developments. So far he has not been successful. But Goldsmith is happier that the Conservatives have scrapped a third runway at Heathrow, whose main flight path comes over Petersham, disturbing the absurdly bucolic scene. In the distance a man cuts weeds with a billhook, while a vagrant sits amid the long grass and asks the local MP for a cigarette. Goldsmith hands him a skinny “rollie” and the tramp – probably anticipating something more substantial – hides any disappointment.

If Goldsmith’s green zeal was deemed by Cameron as offputting to swing voters, the revelation that he was a non-dom – ie legally not paying taxes on overseas earnings – caused more embarrassment to the Conservative leader. Goldsmith quickly put an end to the arrangement, pointing out that most of his earnings were in the UK and subject to full tax. He says the voters of Richmond Park were largely untroubled by the affair, but Cameron was furious at the time. “I never discussed it with him,” Goldsmith says.

By the time of his election in 2010 – overturning a respectable Liberal Democrat majority – Goldsmith was therefore no longer a Cameron golden boy. The economy suddenly seemed more important at Westminster than melting ice caps. He was accused by opponents (and privately by some Tory MPs) of “buying” his seat by spending part of his fortune on his constituency operation.

Meanwhile his marriage to former “It Girl” Sheherazade – mother of his three young children – had broken down in the full tabloid glare as he began a relationship with Alice Rothschild, a socialite member of the financial dynasty. The couple are still together. The tale was spiced up by the fact that Alice’s sister Kate is married to Goldsmith’s younger brother, Ben. With all that going on, is he still glad he embarked on a high-profile political career?

Goldsmith is defiant. “Yes. It is fascinating being an MP.” At a time when he believes parliament is beginning to recover its self-esteem, he says: “I think there is value in being a backbencher who isn’t particularly interested in seeking high office and who can therefore be a committed backbencher. That means holding the government to account.”

He has picked a diverse range of causes, most recently reform of the press. “If you print a story about an actress with a gerbil fetish and it’s wrong, you should apologise on the front page,” he says. His personal data was hacked and he obtained a superinjuction in 2008, although he admits there needs to be a “blurring” of lines to allow journalists to use such tactics to expose serious wrongdoing.

. . .

Goldsmith took part in a Tory rebellion against the sale of publicly owned forests, a scheme which was dropped. He also cites his pride in instigating a Commons debate on the practice of fish discards – dumping good fish are into the sea if they exceed a European quota.

Goldsmith’s passion for localism and direct democracy has seen him engage in so far unsuccessful battles for the wider use of local referendums and giving stronger powers to local voters to recall errant MPs. “I could join the British National party or go on holiday for years, and there’s nothing under the current rules that the voters of Richmond Park could do about it,” he says.

Zac Goldsmith

Although he suspects the government of rigging the energy market to facilitate the building of new nuclear power stations, he is proud of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s record on climate change. He says he hopes he has made an impact on issues such as a new Green Investment Bank and renewable energy.

He is less forgiving of the coalition’s record on agriculture, which he says is in direct breach of pre-election Tory commitments to promote sustainable farming, farmers’ markets and slow food. “I don’t remember anyone talking about cloned meat and mega dairies and mega piggeries,” he says. “I think in relation to food and farming, the government’s got it very wrong.”

But fellow Conservative MPs insist the Richmond Park MP would achieve more if he was simply prepared to play the Westminster game. “He’s a good guy, but hugely remote,” said one Tory MP. “You never see him in the tea room. I wonder if he has bothered to make friends at all.”

Goldsmith agrees that he is not part of any particular political gang or “awkward squad” – a reflection of what he sees as his independent approach to a variety of issues. The downside could be self-imposed marginalisation, especially when it comes to building alliances to challenge power.

Although he says he gets on with the prime minister, it is noticeable that Goldsmith refers to him throughout as “Cameron”. Some Tory MPs believe he retains good access to the top of the party because he remains good political box office and has connections with potentially wealthy donors.

Those at the top of the government say Goldsmith has not been frozen out, but neither is he exactly on Cameron’s radar screen. “He’s not much discussed,” said one senior official, adding tellingly: “He is quite a persistent rebel.”

Goldsmith insists he is not going to change his ways, but becomes coy when asked if the party whips have dangled some kind of ministerial promotion in front of him as an incentive to toe the line. “I’ve had endless discussions,” he says evasively. That’s a politician’s answer isn’t it? “I know – I am a politician.”

Perhaps after a year at Westminster, Goldsmith is picking up some of the tricks of the trade. Will he stand again? “Well, I’m enjoying myself but I don’t want to waste people’s time,” he says. “If I’m able to look back in three years’ time and say I’ve had an impact, I will absolutely be up for doing it again, if I’m asked. But that’s a big ‘if’”.Would he like to be a minister? “I don’t think so.”

But perhaps politics would be the poorer if he did. Michael Gove, the Tory education secretary, says there is something refreshing about Goldsmith. “He is similar to the kind of MPs you had in the 18th or 19th century,” he says, arguing that Goldsmith sees no advantage in climbing the political ladder for personal reasons: “He already has status in society. He already has independent wealth.”

Gove, a close ally of Cameron, says he has no idea whether Goldsmith would be a good minister, but says the question would be almost immaterial. “Zac doesn’t have a trajectory like most politicians,” he says. “Being an MP is simply an extension of various aspects of who he is. He has always been a campaigner. But he also has a particular code by which he lives. That is not to say he is necessarily more moral than you or I. But there is one thing about Zac: he can’t be inauthentic.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor. To comment on this article, please e-mail magazineletters@ft.com

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