Zaxit means Zaxit and Theresa May is trying to make a success of it. Nevertheless, the UK’s captain has switched on the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign, and the Tory party is bracing itself for some turbulent politics ahead.
Zac Goldsmith’s exit on Tuesday night from the Tory party, and the House of Commons, is not quite as much a surprise as Britain voting to quit the EU this year. Ever since 2008, when he was a fresh-faced, Tory candidate in Richmond Park, he pledged that if the Tories ever backed a third Heathrow runway he would quit as an MP and trigger a by-election.
Of course, ‘doing a David Davis’, resigning on a point of principle to fight a by-election, didn’t do David Davis any harm in the long run. But the fact remains that DD would have been Home Secretary in 2010, not a certain Theresa May, if he hadn’t taken a pre-Brexit career break to defend civil liberties.
And despite Goldsmith’s claim that he wants to make this a ‘referendum on Heathrow expansion’, it is Brexit which could prove his biggest crosswind. The Lib Dems are already talking about turning this into a referendum on Brexit instead, in a seat that voted Remain by a big margin in June, as well as hammering hard the message that Goldsmith failed to stop his former party from backing a new runway.
The likely Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney is a virtual unknown in Richmond Park - I should know, I live in the seat. By contrast, Goldsmith is a genuinely popular MP, noted for turning up to schools, fetes, planning protests, and generally cycling around the streets like a kindly village vicar.
Yet his reputation as a man of impeccable integrity took a knock even before the 2015 general election, when he dismissed as “categorically untrue” claims swirling in his local Tory association that he was going to run for Mayor of London.
He was re-elected, with a stonking 23,000 majority, as the Lib Dems were wiped along with other yellow seats in South West London and South West England. Within days, he did indeed reveal he fancied succeeding Boris - and funded a ballot of constituents to see if they wanted him to. On a 25% turnout, 79% of locals said they wouldn’t mind him running for Mayor.
Goldsmith’s disastrous campaign for City Hall, which led to Sadiq Khan winning the highest ever number of votes for London Mayor, badly tarnished his reputation as an honourable gentleman. The whiff of anti-Muslim propaganda, plus his refusal to apologise for playing hardball, left him seriously damaged.
The Lib Dems, no strangers to dirty politics at local level, won’t let all those Remain-voting, Metropolitan liberals forget that. Add in Zac’s strong pro-Brexit views (suppressed in the Mayoral campaign by himself and David Cameron) and you can see why the bookies make the Lib Dems the favourites. The party is going to pile every single activist into the seat, pointing out they “only” need to replicate the 22% swing seen in Witney to win it.
In an extraordinary admission of the Lib Dem threat, Theresa May’s decision not to put up a Tory candidate in the seat underlines just how the Heathrow ‘bumps’ in the air could rival Brexit ‘bumps’ in the road. This will be the first time since 1962 that a ruling Conservative party has opted not to stand a candidate in one of its own seats - and that was in the singular circumstances of Bristol South East, when Tony Benn had managed to renounce his peerage.
The plan in 2016 is to ensure a Tory candidate doesn’t split the vote, but that won’t stop Zac being depicted as the man with a Tory Brexiter target on his forehead. The Lib Dems’ strongest card is that they can actually help cut May’s slender majority, and help the cause of those who want a Parliamentary vote on the shape of Brexit.
Too diffident and shy to be a traditional tub-thumping campaigner, Goldsmith was positively underwhelming in the Commons today, even failing to announce the resignation he had already told his local Tory association. “There are so many questions one could ask at a statement of this sort that I would not know where to begin,” he said. “So I simply use this opportunity to put my absolute opposition on the record”. If those are to become his last ever words in the chamber, he left not with a bang, but a whimper.
Zac is in good company, however. The Government’s Heathrow go-ahead has also left Boris Johnson, the doyen of tub-thumpers, looking uncharacteristically muted. No.10 told us that when the PM addressed the full Cabinet today, she merely noted the unanimous decision of her Cabinet sub-committee and said ‘in passing’ that ministers who disagreed could have ‘limited’ freedom to speak out against it. “There wasn’t a discussion,” the PM’s spokesman said. So neither Boris, nor Justine Greening, dissented when the historic news was delivered.
Of course, the Foreign Secretary and Education Secretary (who were overnight granted special exemptions to express opposition) have to cope with May’s strictures on their freedom of conscience. They cannot ‘campaign actively’ against Heathrow expansion, nor attack it in the Commons.
Boris has come a long way from his defiant ‘lie down in front of the bulldozers’ line. Though he claimed the third runway would never be built, and so lying down would never be needed, his heart didn’t sound in it. I’m told that Boris was so keen not to play to the cameras for once that he even asked for reporters not to be present, only a cameraman, for a ‘statement to the nation’ type clip. Fortunately the BBC, Sky and ITN refused and instead did ask questions. Greening was even more muted than Boris, with no TV clip and only a written statement to her local constituents.
It’s all a far cry from John McDonnell, who famously grabbed the Commons ceremonial Mace in fury - an echo of Michael Heseltine’s own 1970s protest - when Labour Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon backed Heathrow expansion in 2009. McDonnell, then a mere backbencher not Shadow Chancellor, was suspended from the Commons for his antics. Boris, like Zac, is now seeing his blond thatch replaced by grey. Neither did a Tarzan today. The pro-EU, pro-big infrastructure projects Hezza must have smiled a wry smile.
Which brings us back to Brexit and Theresa May. A former Heathrow opponent and former Remainer, she has the zealotry of a convert on both. In allowing some leeway for those who disagree with her, she is clearly trying to keep Tory tensions manageable. But Zaxit may turn out to be a picnic compared to the real Cabinet split she may face over just what Brexit really, really means.