The Undoing of Zac Goldsmith: Congestion Charge Gaffe

A Conservative proposing more taxes? Zac Goldsmith seems to think so, sparking questions over his frontrunner status in the his party’s selection process thus far.


Zac Goldsmith gets flustered after his Tory credentials are questioned. Credit: LBC

Zac Goldsmith gets flustered after his Tory credentials are questioned. Credit: LBC

Zac Goldsmith, the frontrunner for the Conservative nomination for the mayoralty, made a huge and potentially election losing mistake during an LBC hustings hosted by Ian Dale. He announced his, as yet vague, proposal for a massive increase in the size of the congestion charge zone. This has immediately prompted a backlash within Conservative circles as reversing  decades long policy of opposing congestion charge expansion. The announcement threatens to derail his candidacy both for the nomination of the Conservative Party, for which he had been the clear frontrunner as well as his chances of beating the Labour candidate for mayor, Sadiq Khan, assuming he does win the nomination.

Zac Goldsmith, appeared to make the announcement off the cuff following the most personal and intense debates of the Conservative contest so far. He had begun to come unstuck after another candidate, Andrew Boff, the current head of the Conservatives on the Greater London Authority, had insinuated that Zac Goldsmith was not a “proper Tory” due to his support for subsidies to improve the technologies available to black cab drivers to help them compete with modern transport services such as Uber.

Ian Dale, the interviewer and popular radio personality, writing in his column for the Conservative Home website described the moment as having been “dreamed up on the spur of the moment” and as an “election losing gaffe”. Frankly it is hard not to agree with this assessment and Zac Goldsmith should seriously consider either a very quick clarification of what his plans entail or an unequivocal withdrawal of the proposal.

While air quality and the state of the environment at large is a significant issue for Londoners and on which Zac Goldsmith has a clear political advantage over his competitors on both sides of the aisle, the Congestion Charge gets a different response from both the Conservative electorate and the wider London population. The last increase in the size of the congestion Charge zone,  which was imposed under Ken Livingstone in 2007 directly led to a fall in his popularity and his subsequent loss in 2008 to Boris Johnson, who promptly shrunk the zone and won plaudits from Londoners.

This ambition to keep the zone to its original size in very central London has become part of the Conservative orthodoxy in London and a pledge of a dramatic and undefined increase in the size of the zone will bring Goldsmith into conflict with many leading London Tories who have fought hard to stop TFL from attempting to increase its scope. As well as this it appears to be an indirect criticism of current mayor, Boris Johnson, who still holds significant sway over those who will vote for the candidate in the next few weeks.

For Londoners as a whole the Congestion Charge is seen as benefiting the wealthy who can afford to pay the charge, which is between £10.50 and £11.50 depending on how it is paid, while excluding the less well off from Central London and forcing them to take longer routes. At the moment this argument has not gained significant traction as the zone currently offers mostly tourist areas in the West End which are highly congested (more cars went paid the congestion charge in 2014 then had travelled for free through the zone before it was first introduced), and which are covered well by public transport links. However large increases in the size of the zone will disproportionately affect the less well off who will struggle to pay the charge and be locked out of even more of London, especially as much of the city does not benefit from the quantity of public transportation available in the West End.

Although only a single comment, this gaffe will be used repeatedly at upcoming events to hammer Zac Goldsmith and attack his Conservative credentials by his fellow candidates. Sadiq Khan would be politically astute to target the proposals disproportionate effect on the less wealthy who will form the base of Khan’s support. Zac Goldsmith must find a convincing argument which nullifies these complaints or unequivocally rollback his comments lest the frontrunner status handed to a different candidate.


Watch the full debate below.

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