Zac Goldsmith selected as Conservative Mayoral candidate

Zac Goldsmith has today been selected by the overwhelming majority of London’s Conservatives to fight to keep City Hall blue in 2016. With 70% of the vote, Zac comfortably saw off competition from Syed Kamall, Stephen Grenhalgh and Andrew Boff.

The very low turnout (only 9,227 people voted compared to the 87,884 who selected Labour’s candidate) reflects both the fact that Zac was seen as a shoe-in and the lack of enthusiasm this contest has generated.

In a contest that has always depended on name recognition, Zac was the front-runner from the outset. His looks, independence and green credentials give him a far higher London-wide profile than most London Tories. His pitch to Conservatives was simple – I am the candidate who can stop Labour from re-taking the capital. And it’s clear from today’s results that it worked. He now has to extend his appeal to voters from all parties in a city that elected Labour MPs to 45 of its 73 parliamentary constituencies in May 2015.

Zac might be the Tory party’s candidate, but he is no party stooge. Before entering politics he edited The Ecologist – not a magazine read by many Conservatives – and his earnest environmentalism sets him at odds with many of his colleagues in the parliamentary party. Nor will his background shift perceptions of the party as elitist. His father, Sir James Goldsmith, ploughed millions into undermining John Major’s Conservatives in the run-up to the 1997 election in his bid to force a referendum on EU membership, while Berkeley Square is adorned by the exclusive nightclub named for his mother – Annabel’s.

In the House of Commons Zac has burnished his reputation as free-thinker – an outsider who is prepared to put principles before promotion. He refused the offer of a safe seat in rural Hampshire and chose instead to take on the sitting Liberal Democrat MP in his Richmond home – a seat he has made his own; in 2015 he won 58% of the vote. In parliament he campaigned to make MPs more accountable, and was outspoken in his criticism of the government when proposals to allow voters to recall their MPs were watered down under the Coalition. On the thorny issue of Heathrow he has threatened to resign and force a by-election if the Government recommends expansion.

In selecting Zac the Tories have conceded that their best hope is a candidate who stands apart from the party. And some polls suggest that Zac’s counter-intuitive version of Toryism will win over the people of London – the Evening Standard put him marginally ahead of Labour’s Sadiq Khan although the polls have since tightened. As Boris Johnson demonstrated, for a Tory to win over Londoners requires appeal well beyond the 34% who voted Conservative in the General Election. Labour’s choice of Sadiq Khan, over the more consensual Tessa Jowell, should help Zac. And the mayoral campaign will see both parties’ candidates putting distance between their own offer and their parties’ leadership.

The Tories know that Zac as London Mayor will not be an easy ride. His implacable opposition to a third runway at Heathrow puts him at odds with George Osborne and the Business Secretary Sajid Javid. And unlike Boris Johnson, whose leadership ambitions have tempered his challenges to the leadership, Zac is prepared to be isolated on an issue. However, concerns about Zac in office are irrelevant when set against the prize of keeping Labour out of office. For George Osborne, the political capital in defeating Labour in London is worth any price in policies – how much easier his accession if Labour is out of power in Westminster, Scotland and London.

As he launches the nest phase of his campaign, Zac has already said he will hire Lynton Crosby, whose team won for Boris in 2008 and 2012. The Tories’ London team is a little greyer and more middle-aged than when it coalesced in 2007 but it has formidable collective experience. Former Enfield North MP Nick de Bois has run Zac’s campaign to date and Zac has received backing from 8 of the 9 Tory council leaders running a council, including Phillipa Roe in Westminster and the influential leader of Wandsworth Ravi Govindia. Zac also has the backing of south London MPs Stephen Hammond, Justine Greening and Bob Stewart. While he is gearing up for the EU referendum Matthew Elliott, who ran to the No to AV campaign in 2011, is also thought to be offering his services and expect City Hall old hands Matthew Pencharz and Richard Blakeway to be lent on for advice.

Policy-wise housing will dominate, and Zac has promised to look into fairer deals for London’s renters as well as pushing for new housing stock. He has also offer solace to London’s black cabs – a position that may put him at odds with Uber’s vocal fan base. Zac’s green credentials will be burnished in the hope of securing second preferences from London’s Green Party supporters and the growing row over VW may bring emissions front and centre, alongside policies on green spaces, electric cars and cycling.

While UK politics adjusts to the earthquake that was Labour’s leadership contest, and minds in Scotland and Wales focus on national elections next year, London will the cockpit of much of the serious political debate around housing, the environment and transport. For those interested in shaping the debate, the contest just got a lot more exciting.

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