Jimmy Goldsmith, Political Spoiler?

Goldsmith may weaken the Tories and tip the balance to Labor

On Jan. 12, a few dozen followers of legendary corporate raider Sir James M. Goldsmith gathered on a windswept London sidewalk. Someone pulled the drapes from a huge billboard that needled Britain's Prime Minister: "Why can't we have a proper referendum on Europe, Mr. Major?" A cheer went up from the crowd. With that, the Referendum Party's general election campaign against the British Establishment got under way.

The lanky Jimmy Goldsmith wasn't standing out in the cold that Saturday afternoon, but the 2-year-old Referendum Party reflects his own vision. He founded the party for the explicit purpose of demanding a comprehensive referendum on Britain's role in Europe. Goldsmith, 63, is using his hefty personal bankroll, said to be in the billion-dollar range, to get out his message: Brussels bureaucrats are stealing British sovereignty, and British politicians don't have the backbone to stop them. Goldsmith says he will dissolve the party once a referendum has been held.

SHAKING THINGS UP. While Goldsmith is unlikely to score well in the general election, which must be held no later than May, he is shaking up the clubby world of British politics. By fueling British resentment of the European Union, he is making it difficult for either John Major's Conservative Party or the Labor Party opposition to back British participation in the European monetary union scheduled for 1999. Goldsmith, who has pledged $38 million, is introducing money as a political weapon, just as Ross Perot did in the U.S. in 1992.

The recently unveiled billboards are part of a reported $22 million advertising blitz. In British politics, that's big money. Leaked documents supplied by the Labor Party show the Conservatives intend to spend $17 million. Stefano Hatfield, editor of London's Campaign magazine, doubts that Labor will spend more than about $8.5 million.

What is Goldsmith going to get for his money? Not much in traditional terms. Simon N. Braunholtz, political research director of pollsters MORI, estimates that Referendum will score up to 2% of the vote. The party probably won't win any parliamentary seats, he says, not even in the London suburb of Putney, where Goldsmith is running.

But winning seats may not be Goldsmith's goal. He seems to be interested in playing a spoiler's role by stoking the Tory backbench rebellion against Major over Europe. Goldsmith's main threat for the Tories is that he might win enough votes to cost them close races, tipping the balance toward Labor. Referendum plans to challenge any MP who doesn't support a referendum on Britain's role in Europe.

RUBBER STAMPS. Goldsmith's attacks have the Tories worried. To neutralize the billionaire, Major promised last year to hold a referendum if the government decides to join the European currency union. Labor also says it will hold such a vote. But the Referendum Party argues that these votes would be mere rubber stamps of official policy. Recently, the party's attacks on Major have become more personal. One newspaper ad derided him as "impotent."

This is just one example of a rough, even ugly side to Goldsmith's politics. Goldsmith also tends to indulge in knee-jerk anti-Germanism. The EU, he warns, is a disguised plan for German dominance of Europe. French civil servants, he said in a speech last fall, "are arrogant enough to believe that by collaborating with Germany they will become co-masters of Europe. They are just being used."

Such talk may appeal to some Britons but probably detracts from Goldsmith's overall credibility. Of course, the real test will be the election. If Referendum flops, Goldsmith risks being dismissed as a rich paper tiger. But if he does better than expected, he could become a more serious political figure, rather than a slightly eccentric one with money.

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