For those who have not yet heard, Zac Goldsmith has resigned as MP for Richmond Park over the government’s announcement that Heathrow airport will be allowed to expand capacity. After a rather tepid speech in the House, all things considered, Zac said he would quit and thus a by-election would be held. In which he would run as an independent candidate. So basically, Goldsmith has quit the Conservative Party and resigned the whip but wants to remain an MP and feels he needs a by-election to justify this. What a man of the people.
Anyhow, the real news is that the Tories have already announced that they will not run a candidate against Goldsmith, meaning it becomes a showdown between Zac and the Lib Dems (who had the seat pre-2010 and look to do well in a soldily anti-Brexit constituency). Before I tear into them for this, let’s look at what they’ve actually said:
“We disagree with Zac about the need for a by-election in light of this decision, but understand his position. He has been a hard working champion for the people of Richmond Park – as we know he will continue to be if they re-elect him as their Member of Parliament – so we will not be putting up a candidate against him at this by election.”
It will be hard to summarise just how deeply stupid a decision it is by Theresa May to let Goldsmith get away with this, but I will try my best. First let’s start by laying out the main reason May would have thought giving Goldsmith a free pass is a great idea. Running a Tory candidate in Richmond would almost certainly split the Conservative vote and allow the Lib Dems to win it, meaning an embarrassing loss for the Tories. Two things about this: one, this presumes that Goldsmith is still a Tory, which he very is clearly not (the whole reason we are having the by election in the first place is because he has explicitly left the party), so the worry about an embarrassing loss is a non-point given by not running a candidate you are 100% guaranteed to lose the seat anyhow. The other thing is that if a resurgence of the Liberal Democrats, seeing them go from eight MPs to nine, is keeping the prime minister awake at night then she really needs to rethink her priorities.
So now let’s look at why it really is such a terrible idea for the Tories to lay down arms in Richmond. One, you are setting a terrible precedent at a time when such things really do matter. Allowing someone to resign from the party and then run unopposed, giving them as free a pass as you are able to bestow, is telling everyone else in the party that they should be allowed to do the same thing if and when they feel like it in future. When you have a majority that is barely in double digits and are about to go through one of the most fractious changes ever to happen to Britain, one that has torn the Conservative Party every which way for several decades, allowing people to flounce out when it suits them with no consequences is a really, really, really bad idea.
Let’s take an example: May thinks she needs to accept a temporary stop in the EEA while WTO negotiations go on and manages to get the EU Commission and Council to agree to this. What happens when several Tory backbenchers hate this idea and resign a la Goldsmith? Does May let them run unopposed from the Tory camp, citing that Euroscepticism is a deeply held belief, we did have a referendum and all that, and that she respects the MPs for being “hard working champions”? What happens when several more try the same trick, and then several more after that? What happens when she’s running a minority administration, bolstered only by a group of “used to be Tories”? Can she still claim to command the will of the House?
You have every right to ask me what I would have done if I had been in Theresa May’s place. Simple. I would have invited Goldsmith into Downing Street, poured him a drink, and told him how sorry I was that he was leaving the fold. Then I would have very calmly said he should know that if he leaves the party the Conservatives will not only run a candidate against him in the Richmond Park by election, but would throw everything at the seat in terms of money and people on the ground. Not in hopes of winning it (although that would be an added bonus) but simply to prevent Goldsmith from winning by any means possible. And then before showing him out I would have told him that I plan hold a very large grudge against him for the rest of time unless he does the decent thing and announces he is withdrawing from the by election completely within the next 24 hours.
So much for the Iron Mayden. This Richmond debacle actually has me more worried about Brexit than ever before. Until yesterday, I had harboured notions that May was possibly a secret genius who had most of it worked out. It took Zac Goldsmith to shatter that illusion.