London Mayor Candidate Goldsmith Pushes Risk of `Chameleon' Khan

  • Lagging in polls, Tory gets personal about Labour opponent
  • Conservative pledges to build houses, protect environment

Zac Goldsmith spends as much time talking down his Labour Party opponent as talking up his plans as London mayor.

At a rally in a church hall in Wanstead, east London, last week, the Conservative Party candidate said he’d build new homes, expand railways, protect the environment and buttress the police as he made his pitch to become the capital’s next mayor. Goldsmith’s other main message: London “can’t afford” for Sadiq Khan to beat him to the post.

Zac Goldsmith

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Khan, he said, would “whack up” taxes, starve the transport network of 2 billion pounds ($2.8 billion), and concrete over green spaces -- all in the name of his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

“My job is to present my vision, but also to present the choice,” Goldsmith, 41, said in an interview on Monday. “That is what I’ve done.”

The two main candidates are vying for the U.K.’s biggest individual political mandate on May 5, when London’s 5.6-million electorate choose a successor to Boris Johnson. Goldsmith lags Khan in the polls as he tries to emulate Johnson by bucking the trend in the traditionally Labour-leaning capital to take control of a 16-billion pound budget.

‘Divisive’ Campaign

The Tory candidate, with a reputation of being prepared to reach across party lines to get things done, is drilling into his opponent’s ties to Corbyn, who won the Labour leadership on a program that included opposing nuclear weapons and renationalizing the railways. He accuses Khan of being “a political chameleon,” flip-flopping to the extent that “it’s quite hard sometimes to know who I’m up against.” That’s prompted Khan to respond that Goldsmith is flinging mud rather than focusing on issues that matter to Londoners.

“The campaign to choose the mayor of London should fizz with ideas about what we’re going to do,” Khan said in an interview last week. “It’s frankly disappointing that the Tories have embarked on a divisive and desperate campaign.”

Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Johnson, who Goldsmith describes as “unique in British politics,” has frequently joined his would-be successor on the campaign trail, where he’s also indulged in attacks on Khan and the opposition. In Wanstead, Johnson described Labour as “Marxist, Hugo Chavez-worshiping, high-taxing, high-spending, garden-grabbing, Chateauneuf-du-Pape-swilling, bendy-bus fetishists.” One of Johnson’s early moves as mayor was to scrap a fleet of articulated buses brought in under his Labour predecessor, Ken Livingstone.

Brexit Vote

Like Johnson, Goldsmith, whose billionaire father, James, was the founder of the Euro-skeptic Referendum Party in the 1990s, plans to vote for Britain to leave the EU in the June 23 plebiscite. That puts him in opposition to Prime Minister David Cameron and to the 58 percent of Londoners -- Khan among them -- that YouGov Plc says wish to remain in the bloc. Banks including HSBC Holdings Plc and Deutsche Bank AG have indicated they may move jobs to continental Europe from London in the event of a “Leave” vote.

“I’m not asking people to elect me to campaign on this issue,” said Goldsmith. “If London embraces the Jeremy Corbyn-Sadiq Khan agenda, that is a far, far, far bigger risk” than a vote to leave.

The stance on EU membership by Goldsmith, a longstanding Euro-skeptic, mirrors his position on the expansion of Heathrow Airport. He’s vowed to quit his seat in Parliament and force a by-election if the government backs a new runway at the hub, even after the U.K. Airports Commission presented it as the best option. Instead, he advocates improved transport links to and from Gatwick and Stansted, London’s other big airports, followed by eventual expansion there if needed.

A long-standing environmentalist who edited “The Ecologist” magazine before entering politics, Goldsmith has made creating more green spaces and cleaning up London’s dangerous levels of air pollution a priority. He also says he’ll build 50,000 homes per year to address a housing shortage that’s pushing up prices and rents, protect the 32,000-strong police force from government cuts and extend the rail network.

His parliamentary record of joining forces with lawmakers from opposition parties helped Goldsmith win a second term at last year’s general election in his Richmond Park constituency, lifting his majority over the second-placed candidate to more than 23,000 from 4,000 -- the biggest increase in the country.

The mayoral vote is a tougher proposition. Labour won 45 of the 73 London constituencies in last year’s general election, and Khan led Goldsmith by 54 percent to 46 percent in the latest Opinium Research LLP poll on second-preference votes.

“I encourage Londoners who are on the fence to have a look at my record and see that when I make a promise I keep it,” Goldsmith said.

Still, Goldsmith is battling the phenomenon that Labour has been expanding its share of the vote in the capital, Tony Travers, who studies local elections at the London School of Economics, told reporters at an election briefing Thursday.

Johnson “is a very hard act to follow,” Travers said. “The Conservatives really are fighting an uphill struggle in London for this office unless they have a very, very charismatic candidate.”

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