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Is Zac Goldsmith the Conservative Jeremy Corbyn?

25/01/2016 10:48 GMT | Updated 22/01/2017 10:12 GMT

There is a theory that some senior Conservatives are hoping for a Sadiq Khan victory in May's London Mayor Election because it will shore up the Jeremy Corbyn shaped punching bag the Prime Minister has grown fond of. It is a stretch to say Zac Goldsmith has been sent as cannon fodder but as a frequent rebel he makes for a surprising candidate. Appearing on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday, he criticised his party's definition of an affordable home and promised that no social housing tenants would lose their home through regeneration schemes. Last week the Prime Minister made no such commitment. This tendancy towards contradiction is just one of several parallels with the Labour leader whose surprise election has divided his own party as much as the country.

The 2015 General Election was an understandable distraction for the Conservative party, but it is hard to see that much thought went into the selection of their Mayoral candidates. Sadiq Khan ran a lengthy campaign to win over a strong Labour field including Dame Tessa Jowell. Unless you were one of only 9,000 Conservative members who voted, their Mayoral selection mostly went unnoticed. Goldsmith won 70% of the votes cast and the Conservatives have another charismatic Etonian candidate.

Their perceived poshness distracts from fundamental differences. The image of the London Mayor askew a zip wire would be far less amusing if he we thought Boris Johnson's budget calculations were as poor as his circus skills. Goldsmith has the challenge of convincing Londoners that he is more than a pretty face. Corbyn has to convince the public that a party of protest can stake a claim to be a party of government.

In a Parliament dominated by Oxbridge graduates - 12 in the Cabinet alone - Goldsmith and Corbyn's backgrounds stand out. Zac was expelled from Eton for smoking cannabis and his academic career ended with A Levels at the Cambridge Centre for Sixth-Form Studies. A few years after this he was appointed Editor of the environmental magazine The Ecologist (proprietor one Edward Goldsmith). Jeremy Corbyn also attended a fee paying school and dropped out of university without obtaining a degree in Trade Union Studies. His lack of a degree has not been an impediment to his lifelong support for the Trade Union movement although this relationship is being tested now they are at odds over the renewal of Trident.

Corbyn and Goldsmith are described by their supporters as principled men who are not afraid to speak out against their parties. They both have a passion for quixotic issues that seldom inspire the party faithful. Corbyn's backbench career was dominated by his unwavering condemnation of nuclear weapons but his elevated status means he is in touching distance of making this Labour policy. He promised a "new kind of politics" and on at least one interpretation has managed to deliver. Goldsmith has publicly criticised the Prime Minister for his stance on GM crops and, ironically, on recall powers for errant MPs. His promise to make London the greenest city in the world is at odds with his government's recent cuts to solar energy subsidies and u-turn on "the green crap" David Cameron once was so keen. One victory potentially within sight is the decision about a third runway at Heathrow. Zac has threatened to resign if the runway goes ahead and if elected Mayor perhaps he will be rewarded with a reprieve for Heathrow.

Even their greatest detractors fail to talk with malice about either man, but at this level silence can speak volumes about political achievements. They are both well regarded constituent MPs, with Goldsmith converting a Lib Dem stronghold to a Conservative safe seat. Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected to Islington North since 1983, the year David Bowie's "Let's Dance" was released. He went from rank outsider to cult figure, without a sniff of a Cabinet position in between. The Goldsmith campaign can highlight his green credentials but little else. Whilst a reference to Corbyn is not complete without a mention of his huge mandate, both him and Goldsmith appear unlikely political players at this stage of the game.

After 30 years in the wilderness, Corbyn is now using his platform to reshape the Labour party through a never ending Shadow Cabinet reshuffle and a review of key policies. Whether Zac will be so zealous could become clear through the EU referendum campaign. Although the earliest proposed date of June will come after the May election, as son of James Goldsmith, founder and funder of the anti-EU Referendum party Zac may struggle to toe the Conservative party line.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has created fissures through the heart of the Labour Party as he battles to forge policy out of principles. As London Mayor, Zac Goldsmith would have a platform to make problems for his party should his rebellious spirit remain.