October 17, 2015
I once tried to bribe Zac Goldsmith with a 50-pound note, but he didn’t bite, even back then. He was around 15 years old, and the reason for the hush money was purely self-preservation. He was already good-looking and I knew he’d become even better at 20, so I offered him 50 quid to stay 20 feet away from me during the next 15 years if he saw me talking to a girl. My bribe worked with his younger brother Ben, who grabbed the loot and never kept to the bargain. That was in 1997, when Jimmy Goldsmith formed the Referendum Party and I covered its first conference as Atticus in The Sunday Times. (Jimmy got very suspicious when he saw money being given to young Ben, until I told him the reason. He then advised Ben to take the money and ignore the deal.)
I’ve always thought that Jimmy’s idea of offering the British people a vote whether to stay in or out of Europe was a brilliant democratic coup, except that it didn’t best please the politicians and the media. Eighteen years later, we’re right back where we were. Except that we know a bit more how deeply rotten and undemocratic Brussels really is. I went down to Putney with Jimmy, Zac, and Jemima for the ’97 election-night results. When David Mellor got up to concede defeat to Labour, he turned instead against Jimmy, repeating the word hacienda time and again. I was slightly under the weather, and yelled a horrible insult at him. I believe Zac flinched at hearing it. Perhaps I was wrong, but hearing Mellor echo Michael Heseltine’s class-warfare slur against Jimmy outraged me. Especially as Jimmy was as self-made as Hezza and Mellor, except that he bought far better furniture than they did.
But I am writing about Zac, not Jimmy. A columnist recently opined that Zac sounded American with a bit of St. Tropez thrown in. I guess I must be going deaf because Zac sounds pretty English to me, and if memory serves, I don’t think he’s ever been to St. Tropez. (He’s a Cornwall person.) But if one doesn’t print lies about someone with inherited wealth, very good looks, and not a small amount of intelligence, who does one print lies about? Integrity is not a word we usually associate with politicians or journalists, for that matter, but if I had to choose a word that applies to Zac, the i word would be it.
One can tell a lot about a man by playing poker with him, or cricket or even tennis. I’ve done all three with Zac, and he’s very tough in poker but rarely bluffs. I’ve never won a hand against him because all I do is bluff, and he seems to know it every time. On the cricket ground he’s, well, cricket. Ditto with tennis. But it was his unsuccessful recall motion that illustrates Zac’s integrity best. That was an effort to hold MPs to account, and it was defeated because it was a bit like asking a crime syndicate to report to the police any crimes committed by its members.
Friendship aside, the reason Zac would make a great mayor is that he’s fiscally and socially liberal, and a devoted environmentalist. A true green, with none of that wild and crazy stuff, Zac wants to turn London into a Singapore-like city, where one can breathe healthy air, but knowing trade unions and special-interest groups, he’s got a tough road ahead. Real ecological changes will be allowed over their dead bodies. London’s air is among the worst in Europe, and Zac has some very good plans to improve it. The unions, on the other hand, will pour lotsa moola in Sadiq Khan’s campaign. His rival ironically has the same name as Zac’s ex-brother-in-law, and I hope Imran comes west when the time is near and speaks truth to the Pakistani powers that be. Voting for someone because his name is Khan would not serve the Pakistani community one bit, a useless exercise in chauvinism and nothing more. More ugly high-rises, worse air, higher taxes, we all know the score. Zac believes that politicians disrespect people and communities. He wants city villages instead of the dehumanizing council estates. I am sure Sadiq Khan is a decent man, but he’s in over his head. Zac knows the people who are major institutional investors and can build affordable homes. At present, great parts of London are empty, built purely for speculation and causing great resentment. I am someone who can afford to live anywhere I please, yet I find myself really angry when I see parts of Kensington and Chelsea totally dark at night, built and bought by speculators. Imagine what that does to hardworking people without houses.
A lady journalist wrote that “wealth’s greatest gift is dignity.” A rich man is very unlikely to steal or be corrupt. I’m not so sure. More rich people are corrupt than poor ones. I had one business transaction with Zac and it went as follows: He gave me first choice. Not many would do that. He also did that to others. There is a backdrop of widespread dismay with our political class. Come next May, I hope Londoners will vote Goldsmith. I for one will come back, and I hope that’s not a vote loser. Go, Goldsmith.