It’s difficult to tell which colour-conservative faction is smaller: red Tories, or green? Philip Blond’s red Toryism caught the headlines, altered the language used by Cameron and Osborne, and had some influence on policy (including the upcoming ownership green paper). But genuine “red Tories” are rare—in fact, I’m not sure I know of any who really believes Blond’s thesis, as distinct from finding it intriguing, or useful. But in researching Prospect’s lead opinion this month, on the rise of Zac Goldsmith, I found that genuine green Tories are equally hard to find.
Goldsmith is an intriguing figure for a range of reasons: his family background, his philosophical journey from “deep” to moderate green, his fortune, and so on. But the role he will play as an MP (assuming he wins his seat, which he may not) is not at all clear. One thing is clear: he will struggle to lead a green faction. In researching the piece I asked more than a dozen fairly well placed observers who they saw as influential figures in the environmental thinking of the Cameron crowd. Beyond the shadow cabinet team, less than half a dozen quasi advisers and friendly wonks were mentioned. In the piece I argue that this creates an opening for Goldsmith, but one it isn’t clear he wants to fill.
His challenge, if elected, will be to balance his public reputation and his private ambitions. It’s interesting to reflect on similar figures from the same period in Labour’s history; those before 1997 whose high profile association with a cause proved to be both an opportunity and a challenge. In 1995 Frank Field was pushed as the guy to “think the unthinkable” on welfare policy. Clare Short would commit Labour to reaching its obligations on international development, while the likes of Chris Mullin and John Denham would keep the flame of the party’s ethical tradition alive. I admit it’s slightly specious to compare these to Goldsmith: all were Labour stalwarts, all had deep roots in their party, and all had causes which were traditionally Labour causes too. None of these is obviously true with Goldsmith.
Just as importantly, Cameron has (after a brief flurry at the start) actually stepped back from promoting Goldsmith as his most prominent green—there have been no briefings that he will win a prominent job, for instance—sensing perhaps that this most high-profile figure is useful, but also a political risk. Each of those Labour politicians, to an extent, managed to chart a path between their political aspirations and principles, and each to a degree also found the balance between the two impossible to maintain. Goldsmith’s career depends on whether he can successfully conduct the same balancing act. Arguably, “green Toryism” does too.