Conservative London Mayoral Candidate Zac Goldsmith Forced to Run Nasty Campaign

Zac Goldsmith is badly trailing Labour candidate Sadiq Khan in the polls. With the May 5 election just a week away, it is time for extreme measures.

Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative Party candidate for London mayor.
Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

LONDON — It was a mere scheduling coincidence that the interview last week with Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative Party’s candidate for mayor of London, took place in the offices of the Community Security Trust, where he had just received a briefing on the security of the capital’s Jewish community and on hate crimes there in general, but it was oddly apt to the tone of the last few weeks in the mayoral election campaign.

Tucked away in a side street in the north London neighborhood of Hendon, the building houses a number of Jewish organizations in addition to CST, a charity that advises the country’s Jewish community on security matters. There is no sign outside identifying the organizations, and entry is through a bulletproof double-door air lock. There could not be a better illustration of the level of fear, not to say paranoia, pervading European Jewry in 2016.

Goldsmith, 41 and in his second term as a member of the British Parliament, is trailing badly in the polls. With the May 5 election just a week away, it is time for extreme measures.

The main issues facing the mayor of London are the housing shortage, which is pushing working- and middle-class Londoners out of the city, and the high cost of public transportation. In recent weeks, however, the campaign has focused largely on Conservative Party allegations that Goldsmith’s main rival and the race’s front-runner, Labour MP Sadiq Khan, has links to Islamic extremists. The Labour Party has responded by calling the Conservative accusations a “smear campaign” that is stoking Islamophobia, but they have dominated much of the coverage.

If he is uncomfortable with the twist that his campaign has taken, the urbane and soft-spoken Goldsmith does not betray it. “The issues are housing and transport and environment but also security has become an issue,” he says. ”It’s shooting up the agenda and that’s not surprising because what has happened in Paris and Brussels. London is a target, there’s no doubt and people are anxious as a consequence.”

Rivals and political pundits have suggested that Goldsmith, an avowed environmentalist, would have preferred to continue focusing in his campaign on his designs for urban planning that preserves green spaces but was overruled by Conservative Party strategists who believe that only by focusing on security threats and Khan’s alleged ties to Islamic extremists can Goldsmith narrow the gap between them. According to some polls, that gap is as much as 16 percent.

Goldsmith denies that he has even shifted emphasis. “That’s a reflection of what I’m asked,” he says, shifting the blame on to the media, but insists that the mayor of London’s relatively limited powers also include security. “The mayor’s first responsibility is to keep London safe. It’s not his first challenge — that is building 50,000 houses a year — but there’s no doubt it’s the first responsibility. The mayor oversees the police, he doesn’t micromanage them but the job of the mayor is to ensure that London has everything it needs in order to be protected and there’s a very real threat.”

Goldsmith’s problem as a candidate, which is acknowledged also by Conservative insiders who confess themselves baffled that the party didn’t choose a more seasoned candidate, is that he comes over as a rather unconvincing mayor, whether as a builder of thousands of new homes or as a security expert. It is difficult even to describe what Goldsmith, a twice-married father of five, did before he entered politics in 2010.

A son of the late Jewish financier Jimmy Goldsmith, he never had to work for a living — his father left his children an inheritance of 1.2 billion pounds, and Goldsmith married into the Rothschild dynasty. He seems to have spent most of his 20s traveling and bouncing between universities and think tanks, before becoming editor of an environmental magazine owned by his uncle. A graduate of Britain’s most elite school, Eton, Goldsmith shares with fellow Etonians Prime Minister David Cameron and the current Mayor of London Boris Johnson the knack of seeming comfortable in any surroundings.

But he seems to lack Cameron’s energetic enthusiasm and Johnson’s colorful personality, and comes over as a low-powered, lackluster candidate. His charming and intelligent demeanor worked well in the leafy West London constituency of Richmond that he represents in parliament — he was reelected in 2015 with the biggest increased majority of any incumbent MP. But how will he fare in the capital’s grittier boroughs?

As an alternative to any actual executive or ministerial experience, Goldsmith offers London his ability to work well on behalf of the city with the Conservative central government.

“At the end of the day, the mayor’s job is to get the possible deal for London. To make sure our police get the resources it needs. There was a big threat a few months ago of budget cuts to the police budget, big cuts, half a billion pounds. As a London MP but also as a mayoral candidate I took the argument to the home secretary and the chancellor and made the case along with other colleagues — Boris Johnson led it, and we got the budget ring-fenced.” But will Goldsmith’s deal-making talents be enough to get him elected?

The greatest challenge facing Goldsmith in the election is Labour’s majority in London. His party colleague Johnson overcame this using a “doughnut strategy” of encouraging turnout in the relatively more affluent and Conservative-leaning suburbs. Johnson had two additional advantages over Goldsmith going into the election. A well-known media personality long before he entered politics, Johnson’s popularity transcended party lines. And he was running against Ken Livingstone, an extreme leftist who was running for a third term as mayor: Many Londoners, including Labour supporters, felt he had long overstayed his welcome.

To win, Goldsmith needs to retain Johnson’s strongholds. One of these is the city’s Jewish community, where Khan has also been campaigning energetically. Jewish concerns are easily linked to Goldsmith’s security agenda.

“It is incredibly depressing” Goldsmith says about the intense security surrounding the building where the interview is taking place. “I’ve done public meetings where the majority of the audience are Jewish and there’s an anxiety etched on everyone’s face and people just want to know that London is not going to become like Paris,” he says, adding that the French capital has become a symbol of Jewish flight.

“They must be going through the same thought process that people were going through in the 1920s and 30s in parts of Europe, and it’s unbelievably depressing. They’re packing their bags and they’re leaving Paris.” There’s no indication that a similar thing may be happening in London but Goldsmith insists: “I know that there are many, many people here in London who love London, whose roots are here in London, who worry about the future of London, who don’t take the relative harmony we have in London for granted.”

And just as in any election with significant numbers of Jewish voters, even one that is focused on local problems, Israel becomes an issue. “Israel matters” in this race, Goldsmith says. He has been to Israel and is open about his affinity with the country, though “I would never pretend to be an expert,” he adds.

“Yes. I love Israel, I’m excited by Israel, the relationship between London and Tel Aviv is an important one and for the community here that, I think, matters. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people here have strong links to Israel and represent miniature bridges between the two countries, that’s the only democracy in that part of the world — I think those bridges are important.”

Israel is another issue on which he believes he can criticize Khan, who in recent meetings with Jewish groups has said he is against boycotts and sanctions of Israel but had in the past been in favor of sanctions.

“Khan has shown incredibly bad judgment,” Goldsmith says of his rival’s dealings in the past with radical Islamists, back when Khan was a human-rights lawyer. But something about Goldsmith’s character doesn’t allow him to go all the way in attacking the front-runner, as other politicians would not have hesitated to do.

“I’ve never suggested Sadiq Khan has extreme views, I’ve never said that, I’ve never even hinted. I’ve no idea of what his views are. But I do say he’s shown poor judgment in not standing up and not challenging people who mean to do us harm,” Goldsmith says.

“Zac is really a nice guy,” says one Conservative Party insider who asked not to be identified by name and who seemed hard-pressed to say anything else positive about Goldsmith. Many in the party have questioned whether Goldsmith has the killer instinct necessary to win a tough election.

One thing that Goldsmith has not done is to trade on his name and his roots in an attempt to attract more Jewish voters. “My Jewish roots have not been a particular factor in this campaign,” he says, though he claims that visiting synagogues, as well as Sikh temples and other places of worship, was one of the most enjoyable parts of the campaign for him. “You don’t enjoy everything in a campaign,” admits Goldsmith, a nice candidate being forced by his party to run a nasty, and most likely also a losing, campaign.