STOP ME IF you’ve heard this one: An outsider politician who owes his station in life to the hundreds of millions he inherited from his father is running a failing campaign for office based on stoking fear of Muslims.
The word “failing” — as in 20 points down in the polls days before the election — is a clue that we are speaking about someone other than Donald Trump.
In this case, the politician’s name is Zac Goldsmith, and he is the millionaire scion of a prominent British family. He was thought of, until recently, as a mild-mannered Conservative member of Parliament, known mainly for his environmentalism and his sister’s friendship with the late Princess Diana.
For the past two months, however, he has generated waves of disgust and, polls suggest, not much sympathy, by pursuing a mayoral campaign filled with racially divisive innuendo about the supposed danger of electing his Labour Party rival, Sadiq Khan, a son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants.
Things reached something of a crescendo over the weekend, when Goldsmith — advised by a political consultant whose website boasts that he was “described by Newt Gingrich as the U.K.’s own ‘Lee Atwater’” — published a dog-whistle appeal to voters in the Mail on Sunday, a right-wing tabloid, that implied Khan, a moderate member of Parliament, would somehow fail to defend the British capital from Islamist terrorists.
The piece, which offered nothing more than hyperbolic claims that Khan was linked to extremists through his prior work as a human rights lawyer, ran alongside a photograph of a bus destroyed during the July 7, 2005, terror attacks in London, under the headline: “On Thursday, are we really going to hand the world’s greatest city to a Labour Party that thinks terrorists are its friends?”
The use of that image, and the perverse implication that the Muslim candidate whose own father drove a London bus should be associated with the terrorists who carried out that atrocity, did further damage to Goldsmith’s reputation, energizing his opponents and apparently costing him the support of even some friends and Conservative colleagues.
Among those who expressed disgust at the opinion piece were Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and the first Muslim to serve in a British cabinet, and Goldsmith’s friend Bianca Jagger, who accused him of surrendering to his party’s Australian campaign strategist, Lynton Crosby.
This effort to play on fears of Islamist terrorism, just days before the voters go to the polls, was perhaps the most blatant part of Goldsmith’s campaign against Khan, but, as Simon Hattenstone explained in The Guardian, it followed a concerted effort to drive a wedge between different parts of London’s large South Asian population.
The first phase of the effort, which generated alarm in March, concerned campaign literature mailed to London voters presumed to be Hindus or Sikhs, based on their last names, that seemed designed to exploit anti-Muslim tensions among different faith groups from the Indian subcontinent.
One line of attack seemed to be based on the assumption that members of those communities would reject Khan, the British-born son of Pakistanis, either because he did not attend a ceremony to welcome India’s divisive prime minister, Narendra Modi, or might impose a tax on the gold jewelry of their families.
That part of Goldsmith’s campaign led Shazia Awan, a Conservative party activist and former parliamentary candidate from Wales, to speak out about what she described as an “attitude to ethnic minority voters” that recalled colonial-era strategies of divide and rule, which she said have no place in a modern, cosmopolitan Britain.
“I always admired Goldsmith and felt he was a principled Tory, an environmental campaigner, someone who, despite the privilege he was born into, truly loves the real London and the people that make this city great,” Awan wrote in the New Statesman last month. “All I see now is a man who is too weak to stand up to those directing his campaign, and as a result ruining his own reputation and credibility in the fickle pursuit of power.”
Goldsmith’s attempt to position himself as a defender of British Indian culture also led to some inadvertent hilarity when he insisted last month that he loved the genre of Indian cinema known as Bollywood, but was immediately stumped when asked to name a single actor or film that he liked.
After Khan directly accused Goldsmith of running an Islamophobic campaign, the Conservative attempted to connect his rival to extremism by telling the Evening Standard that the Labour candidate had shown “appalling judgment” by speaking at events alongside “repellent” extremists like a Muslim cleric named Suliman Gani.
That attempt backfired spectacularly when Gani himself revealed photographic evidence that he had also appeared with Goldsmith, and even campaigned for the Conservatives against Khan at last year’s general election over the Labour candidate’s vote for same-sex marriage.
The result of Goldsmith’s campaign is that he not only trails badly in the polls, but has inspired critics like Owen Jones, a Guardian columnist, to call on voters to deliver a landslide victory for Khan in London, where the ethnic minority population is now 44 percent.
Even Ken Livingstone, a former Labour mayor of the capital — who was repudiated by Khan last week, for bringing up Hitler in a debate over anti-Semitism — has expressed sympathy for Goldsmith’s apparent unease at saying things he probably does not believe in a desperate effort to get elected.
“Zac looks as if he’s heading for a breakdown, because he’s being forced to behave in a way that isn’t natural to him,” Livingstone told The Guardian last week. “Given the cosmopolitan nature of his family, he can’t possibly believe all this crap.” Goldsmith’s father, Sir James Goldsmith, was Jewish, and his sister, Jemima, converted to Islam in 1995 to marry the Pakistani cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan. After that marriage dissolved, the candidate’s sister returned to her maiden name, and is now known as Jemima Goldsmith again — except on Twitter, where one of the couple’s two sons insisted that she continue to use the handle @Jemima_Khan. As she noted in March, that has created a fair bit of confusion about the mayoral race among her followers.