Are the Conservatives sharp enough to be able to beat the Liberal Democrats in battleground Remain-voting seats? We hear today that they might put forward Zac Goldsmith as their candidate for Richmond Park – the same Zac Goldsmith who quit the party in protest at the Heathrow decision, then triggered a by-election and ran as an independent. But he lost to a Lib Dem. So now he has decided to rejoin the party and run again – and oddly, they’ve let him. He’s in the final three. To select him would be a huge tactical own goal for the Tories: as Neil Kinnock found out, when voters turn something down, they don’t like to be asked again. And as Zac found out, it’s hard for an arch-Brexiteer to win in an arch-Remain constituency: a new fact of political life.
But the Tories in Richmond do have an alternative. Also standing for the seat is Luke Parker, one of the most promising Tory activists I’ve met. I chaired the 2015 selection meeting for the Twickenham Conservatives where Parker lost narrowly to Tania Mathias, but I was hugely impressed by his energy, optimism and credentials. He has a very well-paid job which he was willing to give up for what he saw as public service. He was a tireless activist for the Tories, and ended up fighting the Labour safe seat of Brent North for them at the last general election. He had also come up through life the hard way: he’s from a working class background and his life story rather different to Zac Goldsmith’s frictionless rise. He campaigned for Remain, so is aligned with his constituents on this definitive issue in a way that Zac, erm, isn’t.
Like Sajid Javid (above) his life has been a model of what social mobility should be in Britain – but, all too often, isn’t. Like Javid, he has entered politics to do what he can to make the social mobility he enjoyed more common experience. You can find MPs from all parties who give this rationale and I’ve always thought this is the very best reason to enter politics. For both Parker and Javid, it’s the opposite of a career move: politics means longer hours and much less money. But you can argue – as Javid did – that having benefited from a decent education and great business opportunity it’s your duty to put something back. But the Tories, as a party, tend not to value this as much as they should. The old joke is that when Tories talk about “diversity” they mean greater diversity of wealthy Oxbridge alumni. Since the election was called, the Tories have not seemed too interested in recruiting new talent – the emphasis has been on recycling old MPs. Another depressing trend.
Luke Parker’s weakness at that Twickenham selection meeting was fairly simple: it was clear that his true affiliation was to neighbouring Richmond, where he lived, and where his wife taught in a local primary school.
The Tories don’t do very well in recruiting candidates from working class backgrounds. It would be a shame if the party now conforms to type, decides to forgive someone who quit the party and was all set to run against it – like Zac Goldsmith – rather than someone who has worked tirelessly for it like Luke Parker. Apart from anything else, Zac is certain to lose. So keep an eye on the Richmond Park election campaign: it could say quite a lot about the future direction of the Conservatives.