It’s rare for politicians to recover from losing an election. Public opinion is king and a politician that loses it has a weakened mandate to make policy. Politicians need support from their electorate to justify their decisions. Opposition members pounce on polling data to undermine unpopular governments and obstruct their policies. Aside from that, people have an unfortunate habit of remembering defeat and the media love to label someone as a loser. 24-hour rolling news coverage combined with digital saturation means that one bad story becomes a permanent Wikipedia entry, and one bad photo becomes a self-perpetuating meme.
Whether this superficial media scrutiny is beneficial for democracy is a debate for another time. This is the state of the world, and politicians are aware of it. They know that the price of failure is usually their job.
So… imagine losing two elections. In one year.
2016’s London Mayoral election was memorable for many reasons, not least because it saw the first Muslim to be elected to the post. This was one of the most toxic campaigns in recent history. Towards the end of the contest, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, increasingly resorted to making tenuous links between Sadiq Khan and extremist Islamic figureheads. This was especially surprising given Goldsmith’s history of moderate conservatism and activism (e.g. his championing of the Right of Recall bill and his work in highlighting a possible paedophile ring in Parliament). Given that even Goldsmith’s own sister was shocked by his rhetoric, it doesn’t seem implausible that he was briefed to campaign aggressively by senior figures (kudos, Sir Lynton). Given a free rein, Goldsmith may have preferred to discuss devolution or environmentalism, and avoid making race the centre of the election. Mission: counter Sadiq’s race card with the racist card. Result: loss of credibility, damage to reputation, media storm… and he didn’t get to become Mayor.
Fast forward a few months to a new world: it’s post-EU referendum and Prime Minister May’s government are faced with the issue of airport capacity. When May warmed to the idea of expanding London Heathrow Airport, there was criticism from all quarters: Labour was lobbied by unions to block this proposal; environment groups protested at the site; Foreign Secretary and all-round “good sort,” Boris Johnson, said it was an undeliverable plan. However, no one had really tried to stop it: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was sceptical about uniting his party on the issue; protesters were ignored; BoJo was “resigned” to support the Prime Minister’s position to the project. Opponents of the policy needed a voice.
Enter Zac Goldsmith, stage right.
The MP for Richmond Park, an area directly impacted by the proposed Heathrow expansion as it’s situated in the flight path of planes using the airport, was committed to opposing the building of a 3rd runway at Heathrow, and previously promise to resign if the government planned to do so. Hence, on October 25 Zac Goldsmith stood down from his seat, triggering a by-election. He then announced he was running as an independent candidate, platforming a policy to fight the expansion of the airport. This was a very different Zac Goldsmith from the one seen during the London Mayoral campaign. Mission: counter centralised government oppression by promoting localism and devolution to communities. Result: increased credibility, strengthened reputation, reasonably positive media coverage… and he lost again.
Sarah Olney of the Liberal Democrats overcame Goldsmith’s 2015 comfortable majority to take a much-needed win. Popular opinion is that Goldsmith was a victim of Brexit-backlash: Richmond Park had voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. In the end, the Lib Dems may, strangely, have even less authority to oppose the Heathrow expansion (and far less to oppose Brexit) than an Independent. The former coalition partners have not yet recovered from the mauling the electorate gave them during the 2015 general election. In that election, the Lib Dems received fewer votes than UKIP, the right-wing isolationist party led by the potential future UK Ambassador to the United States of @therealamerica, Nigel Farage (no, please, no). Goldsmith’s resignation itself was a bad idea to begin with. At least in government, he may have been able to convince some minister to back his proposals, increasing the likelihood of concessions to his constituents.
So, having left his constituency in a worse position than before and reducing his (former) party’s already slim parliamentary majority, what next for Zac Goldsmith? Well, he might in fact join a select list of politicians who improved their career prospects with an electoral loss. How? Consider that after the Mayoral campaign, his name was in the mud with certain members of the Conservative party and many of his own ‘small-L’ liberal constituents. By losing his parliamentary seat at the end of a campaign where he re-established himself as a devotee of power-to-the-people localism, he may have restored his credibility as a principled, libertarian ‘man-of-his-word’. This electoral failure could perhaps be the making of Zac Goldsmith politically.
Or he goes back to being a billionaire who dabbles in journalism. One of the two.