Zac Goldsmith says the time has come to change the Tory leadership rules. The MP for Richmond Park contends that when there is next a contest, Conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Daniel Hannan, who hold elective office but are not members of the Commons, should be allowed to throw their hats into the ring.
While most politicians seek advancement within the existing framework of rules, Goldsmith often asks why the framework itself cannot be changed. He has a gift for allying himself with members of other parties, in order to campaign for radical reform on issues such as the exposure of child sex abuse, the recall of MPs, the future of Heathrow Airport and the risk that antibiotics will become useless.
In this interview, Goldsmith attacks David Cameron’s refusal, in the recent reshuffle, to promote talented backbenchers who have committed even minor acts of rebellion. Goldsmith also explains how he was drawn in to the child sex abuse issue and came to the conclusion that terrible crimes have for many years been covered up. He believes justice for the victims must be obtained: “If there is a Cabinet minister who engaged in the most disgusting crimes, and if that Cabinet minister is still alive, I want that Cabinet minister to be made to face justice.”
The interview took place on Tuesday afternoon on the terrace of the House of Commons.
ConHome: “So what should Boris do next? Should he come back in to this place?”
Goldsmith: “I do think there’s something to be said for changing the rules around leadership elections. I think it would make sense for anyone who’s an elected member of our party to be able to put their hat in the ring. A popular MEP or a popular mayor or a popular council leader or whatever. I think it would expand the pool. And it would also avoid the need for endless discussions about what so and so is going to do and whether or not they’re going to have to come back into Parliament and whether or not someone else is going to have to vacate their seat. I think it’s a natural, logical thing to do. I know Stanley Johnson [father of Boris] suggested this. Maybe he wasn’t the right person to suggest it. But I think it’s almost unarguable. Someone like Dan Hannan, who’s very popular with the grass roots [and is already a Tory MEP], if he wanted to try his luck as leader, why not? Why shouldn’t he be able to? I can’t see any killer arguments against it.”
ConHome: “And then a by-election, as in 1963 when Alec Douglas-Home became leader, would be arranged?”
Goldsmith: “Yes, there are always plenty of people…promoted to the Lords.”
ConHome: “I hadn’t thought of Hannan. He might sweep through. It’s probably a weakness in me, but it almost sounds dangerously populist. Perhaps it would just be popular rather than populist. One thinks that whoever’s going to be leader has got to command the confidence of a majority of Conservative MPs. But Cameron didn’t get a majority of the MPs [in the final ballot of MPs in 2005, before the top two candidates were presented to the membership, Cameron got 90 votes, David Davis 57 and Liam Fox 51]. By the way, people were enchanted by this probably always rather ridiculous idea that you were going to make way for Boris in Richmond. I’d better just check you’re not going to try to become Mayor of London.”
On the contrary, Goldsmith said, he has been readopted as the Conservative candidate in Richmond, and his promise to resign if the Conservatives ever agree to a third runway at Heathrow remains in force. The misleading idea that he might do a job swap with Boris arose when a blogger suggested it. He and Boris discussed the blog, so when asked if they had talked about the idea, they replied that they had.
Goldsmith: “It wouldn’t work anyway. One, I love Richmond, it’s my home, I’ve spent almost all my life there. If you want to launch a campaign to become Prime Minister you don’t use a volatile marginal seat like Richmond. It would not be the best platform, even for Boris. Having said that, I absolutely adore Boris. I think he’s a brilliant figure. There’s a magic about him which is really unique in British politics. If he comes to Richmond or Barnes or Kingston, people want to touch him, they want to get as close as they possibly can, it’s quite extraordinary, all that polite English stuff goes out the window, people swerve their cars, poop their horns. There’s no one else in British politics who has anything like that impact.”
ConHome: “What did you make of the Prime Minister’s latest reshuffle?”
Goldsmith: “He’s selecting from a very narrow pool of people. Somewhere along the line collective responsibility has ceased to apply just to the Government and applies to everyone in the party. I don’t include myself in this – I’ve voted lots of times against the party. It clearly would be absurd for me to expect a phone call on reshuffle day. But there are some very, very brilliant colleagues of mine who have spoken out once on an issue or voted once against the party on an important issue of principle, and other than that they’ve pretty much toed the line, and I would have thought those are exactly the kind of people who we want on the front benches. People who have been willing to take on authority, willing to stand up for their principles on really important issues, but because they’ve done so, they’re excluded from any kind of promotion. It does require the leader to take a slightly more mature and grown-up view.”
ConHome: “How did you get involved in the child sex abuse issue?”
Goldsmith: “I was being approached by a lot of people in the context of my constituency. Elm Guest House is in Barnes, which is in the top part of the constituency, and there was a care home in Richmond where a lot of young children were abused. I didn’t want to look at it. It’s a really dark and sinister thing. It just had a smell about it of cover-up. The more you look at the stories, and then you start looking at stories elsewhere in the country, all the way to Northern Ireland and beyond, it’s very hard to escape the conclusion that there have been a series of cover-ups. There may not be an over-arching Establishment cover-up, as some people say, but without any doubt at all lots of individual cover-ups, and rather than try to decipher the truth myself, which I’m not equipped to do, and don’t want to have to do either, I’m just not the right person to do that, I wanted to know there was somewhere I could go with the information I was getting, with the questions I was being asked, and believe that that somewhere would be able to answer them, and currently that doesn’t exist.
So that was why I wanted to push for an over-arching Hillsborough-style inquiry. The Hillsborough inquiry has worked, it’s uncovered lots of horrible things, but I think that most people, no matter how wounded and battered they are, they feel that the questions have been answered and it is possible now to start moving on.
It’s a horrible thing. It’s one of those areas that attracts so many conspiracy theories. Whereas a few years ago the inclination would have been to dismiss them as conspiracy theories, as time goes by, they start to look less like theories.
I obviously don’t want to go into any of the details on the record, because this is a dicey area, but I’ll give you an example. I was called last week by someone who’s impeccably placed, impeccable sources, he said to me you’ve got to look at Kincora, you’ve got to look at the terms of reference, you’ve got to look at the report that was produced by the judge, and you will see that the terms of reference were changed to exclude any possibility of investigating abuse by visitors.”
ConHome: “Absolutely preposterous.”
Goldsmith: “There’s no elegant interpretation of that. Clearly this was designed to prevent embarrassment and to protect powerful people who were visitors. The judge when he provided his report, you can see it’s laced with bitterness, he’s very angry, lots of innuendo as well, he’s angry that he’s not able to go further that the remit. As it happens, it was Michael Havers who wrote the terms of reference. I was very torn over the Butler-Sloss business, because I do think she’s a magnificent woman, very clever, very tough, I can absolutely imagine her taking no prisoners, and I think that being a woman, in this context, I’m not normally a box-ticker, but I think in this context that matters.
I want to be able to park this issue. I want the terms of reference for the inquiry to be all-encompassing. I want to have this place where I can channel all the stuff that’s coming my way. I don’t want to have to become an expert in this area. But it’s got to be bullet-proof, people have got to have absolute confidence this is really going to work, and I do think Theresa May, I spent a long time with her yesterday [Monday], I have no doubt that she has the best intentions, really no doubt, I think she wants this thing to be done properly. And I suspect she regrets having made that appointment. She would never say so. But it looked to me like a rushed job. When she told me the name I thought it was a great idea. I think a lot of people did.”
ConHome: “So you still hope it’ll be a woman.”
Goldsmith: “It doesn’t have to be, but I think it’d be better. All bar one of the allegations I’ve seen concern men. And the same names keep coming up over and over again. When you hear five or six people talking about the same piece of evidence which found its way to the police and has apparently disappeared, you have to wonder what the hell’s going on. Some of it I’m sure is mythical, but not all.”
ConHome: “That is a very difficult thing to assess, if partly from a feeling of repulsion, one doesn’t take a close interest in it, and I’m by no means an expert, but I read Simon Danczuk’s book. It presented incontrovertible evidence that the police had passed a great deal of evidence to the DPP in 1970, and mysteriously nothing happened.”
Goldsmith: “That’s so depressing, and frightening as well. Because of all the countries in the world, this is the one where I would still like to think I can most trust the police and can most trust the authorities, and increasingly we’re seeing a rot at the heart of the Establishment, and I find that incredibly depressing.”
ConHome: “So what do you say to people like Charles Moore who argue that these inquiries into historical sex abuse are being set up on the basis of flimsy evidence because the authorities have taken fright.”
Goldsmith: “Look you can take a view that these things happened a long time ago and we should now just move on. There have been times when the slap and tickle, Benny Hill stuff was OK. You know, you could pinch a woman’s bum and it was considered naughty, cheeky but quite funny. Nowadays you know you can’t do that kind of thing and the culture has changed quite profoundly. But there has never been a time when it’s been OK to rape little children. You go back a hundred years, it may have happened, but it’s never been OK.
And I personally have two concerns. One is that people whose lives have been ruined, they need to believe that justice has been done, and it clearly hasn’t. They need to not be marginalised, they need to be listened to. Purely from the point of view of natural justice, they need to have that outlet and they haven’t had that outlet, they’ve been treated as if they’re making things up. And on the other side, I don’t like the idea of guilty people going to their graves peacefully. I don’t like the idea that Jimmy Savile never had to face the music. I think we need a sort of cathartic process here. I think if there has been a Cabinet minister who engaged in the most disgusting crimes, and if that Cabinet minister is still alive, I want that Cabinet minister to be hauled over the coals. I want them to be made to face justice. I think that’s really important. I think it’s important to society. On a personal level, I would like to see that happen.
But there are plenty of people who know a lot more about this than I do. My concern was a bit, you’ve had some great interventions by Tom Watson and Simon Danczuk, both of whom have been I think heroic, and I think they’ve both been very careful not to politicise this as well. This is not a Left-Right thing obviously, it’s not a party issue. But I felt we needed nevertheless to have a cross-party approach to the Home Secretary. So the list of people I assembled, it could have been a lot bigger, but it was a nice selection of seven people from the different parties. I thought that would resonate with the Home Secretary and I think it did. She was very receptive. The first letter she wrote back effectively said no but maybe. And then a couple of days later, we went in to see her before her statement and it was obvious she’d changed her mind. But she’s quite easy to deal with, Theresa May, she’s quite open, you can have a discussion with her.
The point is, if a fraction of a per cent of the allegations that are now common currency on the social media are true, this is a monumental scandal. It’s huge. So I think you have to engage with this kind of issue. This dwarfs Leveson. I think it’s going to be ugly and unpleasant and destructive, but I think that ultimately it’ll be a cathartic and useful exercise for us. Something very bad has happened and it’s not the kind of thing that can just be naturally and comfortably swept under the carpet.”